*** DISCLAIMER ***
This story sample contains some graphic violence and vulgar language. If things of this nature offend you, please do not read any further.
*** END DISCLAIMER ***
Thick, brown cocoons pulled down on the branches of the ancient, solitary tree. Their weight threatened to snap the very limbs from which they hung. The enormous, twisted orbs of bark swayed softly in the warm breeze of the warm summer morning.
Sharp pops filled the air as the cocoons began to crack and split open. The sound of breaking bark overwhelmed the otherwise quiet clearing. The trees lining the forest clearing gave the oversized tree in the center a healthy berth; not even grass nor weeds encroached upon the diseased soil surrounding the old, warped tree.
A twisted hand covered with loosely hanging flesh pushed through one of the husks. Oozing sores and boils stood out sharply against the pale white of the dead skin stretched across a web of bone. An arm, just as grotesque, followed the hand through the broken cocoon. The hand grasped anxiously at the warped shell to gain leverage as the creature within emerged.
Next through the cracked hulk of a husk came a head. Open sores leaked puss and congealed blood down the creature’s upside down face into the tangled mess of hair atop its head. Half of the flesh over its mouth was missing. Its rotting, crooked teeth greeted the warm morning air.
The thing moaned eagerly. Its shoulder escaped the tight confines of the cocoon. It writhed and twisted to free itself from the barken prison, as it did every year. Its second shoulder popped through the cracked bark. With that, the creature easily slid through the expanded opening of the cocoon. Its deformed face smashed into the dirt ten feet below with a dull thud. The bones in the things neck snapped under the pressure. A frustrated moan escaped the beast and it flailed on the barren ground trying to right itself.
Eventually, its feet found a solid footing. The creature pushed itself up slowly. Hunger bloomed in its black eyes, one of which dangled from a gaping socket. Its crooked neck remained at an unnatural angle.
All around the creature, hundreds of others just like it began raining out of the gigantic tree. They bounced off branches as they fell and piled high on top of each other as they crashed to the dead earth below. Dreadful moans escaped from deep within the pileup as they struggled to free themselves from the tangled mass of limbs and rotting flesh. The scent of death and decay hung thick in the stall air surrounding the mammoth tree.
The first creature to free itself from the tree managed to avoid the pile of bodies and stood watching the forest. A horrid scream escaped its decaying lips. The unnatural sound signaled the official start of zombie season.
Hammering in the street roused Earl from a deep sleep. Sitting up, he rubbed his eyes with balled fists. A yawn escaped him as he blinked away the sleep.
“What the hell?” he grumbled and looked toward the window. Red anger bloomed in his cheeks. The aftertaste of last night’s bourbon tickled the back of his throat.
He threw the sheets back and groggily stood up. He approached the window and cast the curtains aside. Fresh air and blinding light greeted him through the open window. He squinted and shielded his eyes with an arm until they had a chance to adjust before poking his head through the window. Leaning out, he inhaled deeply. The warm morning air was a welcome intrusion. The noise was another story all together. His head throbbed from the combination of noise and booze.
People lined the street in both directions as far as he could see, building a makeshift barrier out of wood, cars, sandbags, and just about every other inanimate object imaginable. If it wasn’t nailed down, it was part of the ramshackle wall. The thick forest beyond the barrier stood completely silent. Not a single bird nor cricket chirped from within its depths. Earl eyed the trees wearily. Even hung over, he knew something was off about the forest. A chill ran down his spine and goose bumps exploded across his arms.
“Morning, Earl!” Jim cried from the street below, looking up at the man hanging out the window.
“What the hell is going on out here?” Earl yelled down at the smiling man in the street- thankful for the diversion from the eerily silent forest.
“Zombie day, of course,” Jim replied as though it were obvious.
“Oh,” Earl mumbled and disappeared back through his window. He paused and cocked his head while stumbling back toward his bed. “Zombie day?”
He turned around and stuck his head back out the window. “What the fuck is zombie day?”
Jim ignored Earl and went about his work of fortifying the barrier. Earl grumbled and pulled his head back inside.
“Bunch of fucking retards if you ask me.” Rubbing his aching temples, he made his way downstairs. The smell of fresh coffee filled his nostrils and a mindless smile crept onto his face when his wife handed him a cup.
He took a sip and looked at the woman who had grown up in the small town. “What the hell is zombie day, Pattie?”
“Say what now?” She was caught off guard by his question.
“Zombie day. Jim said that’s why all the racket is coming from outside.” Earl shrugged, unsure how to continue. Nothing since the moment he’d been woken by the pounding outside- with the exception of the steaming cup of coffee in his hand- made any sense to him.
“Shit, that’s today? We better get to the store.” Earl picked up on the nervous energy in her voice, but didn’t know what to make of it.
She grabbed her keys from the counter and nearly ran past Earl. His fingers wrapped around her upper arm softly. She stopped in her tracks even though her body language said she should be moving- said they should both be moving.
“What is zombie day, Pattie?” he asked as sincerely as possible, even though the words sounded absurd coming from his mouth.
Pattie looked at him and sighed. “I’ll explain on the way. We don’t have much time.”
“Keys won’t help you,” Earl insisted as they headed for the door together. “For some reason there is a line of garbage the whole way down the street. Everyone’s lost their damn minds.”
“Shit,” Pattie mumbled as she opened the door.
Jim waved at them as they stepped out onto the porch. He dropped his hammer on the hood of the blue car and trotted over to the porch.
“You guys ready?” The grin on his face could barely be contained by his cheeks.
“Ready for what?” Earl clenched his fists. What he was ready for was to beat the answer out of somebody if they kept avoiding his questions.
Mary shook her head and frowned. “I need to get to Martin’s.”
Jim laughed. “Don’t worry. I figured you might have run out of time with the move and all. I got enough for you guys when I went down yesterday.”
“Enough what? What the hell is going on?” Earl nearly shouted, the veins in his forehead pulsed from trying to follow a conversation he didn’t understand- a conversation that made no sense at all.
“You didn’t tell him about zombie day?” Jim’s brow furrowed as he looked at Pattie.
“I meant to, but time kind of got away from me.” In honesty, Pattie hoped they’d have put an end to the whole ordeal while she was away. She didn’t want to have to explain the whole shebang to her husband. He would have thought her insane if she’d brought it up under normal circumstances.
Earl looked at his wife with anger in his eyes. His knuckles turned white as he clenched his fists even fighter.
“Will someone just tell me what the hell is going on before my head explodes?” he pleaded.
“Every year on the nineteenth of July the zombies attack. Be prepared and you’ll probably live,” Jim supplied.
Earl shook his head, unsure if he’d heard correctly. “Zombies? Yeah ok, very funny. What is it really?” He was sick of the shit and just wanted a straight answer.
“This is why we don’t marry outsiders, Pattie. They think we’re nuts.” Jim’s voice was stern but understanding. “They just don’t get it.”
Earl shook his head. “These people are insane. Why the hell did we have to move here again?”
“An attitude like that will get you killed, friend” Jim muttered and started to walk away.
Pattie shoved her elbow into Earl’s gut and mouthed the words, “you apologize to him.”
Earl sighed. “I’m sorry, Jim. I didn’t mean it. For all I know this could be some elaborate hoax to pull one over on the new guy in town.” His eyes wandered up and down the street. “Too elaborate.”
Jim turned and smiled. “No big deal. Don’t worry about it. I know it must be hard to comprehend. By the end of the day, you’ll truly be one of us. Baptism by fire, but for the record: I wish it was just a prank. It’d make things a hell of a lot easier.”
He looked toward the silent forest. “They come from there, that’s why we build the wall every year.”
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to build a permanent wall?” Earl asked. “Then you wouldn’t have to go through the same shit every year.”
Jim shrugged. “It would cost too much to repair a permanent one every year. We use what we have lying around so ours is basically free. Keeps our minds occupied and off of what’s about to hit us too.”
Earl nodded as though he understood even though he didn’t. He wondered how the whole town had gone fruit loops overnight. He wrapped his arm around his wife’s waist and looked into the forest and decided to humor the man on the sidewalk.
“When do they come?” Earl asked, barely trying to hold back his sarcasm. He caught another elbow from his wife for the feeble attempt.
A horrid shriek originating deep from within the forest filled the air. Before that moment, such a sound had never graced Earl’s ears. He was thankful for that. The look of worry on Pattie’s face made his heart race. He didn’t recognize the sound, but she obviously did.
“Now,” she mumbled and swallowed the lump in her throat. It felt like a ball of hot tar going down.
The roar of what Earl believed to be a tornado siren filled the air. He watched in confusion as people all along the street struggled to finish boarding up their windows with what little time remained. Those that had already finished turning their homes into Fort Knox hurried inside. Some lent a hand to their neighbors in need, but most did not.
Jim looked at Earl and Pattie’s house and shook his head. “You two need to come with me. Your house isn’t even close to ready. You wouldn’t stand a chance in there.”
Pattie nodded and stepped off the porch onto the stairs. Earl grabbed her arm again. Her eyes were full of fear and pleaded with him to trust her. He got the message without her having to say a word and let go.
The three quickly disappeared into Jim’s house. With the windows boarded up, Earl was surprised at how dark it was inside. Jim quickly locked and braced the door with a few boards. A single swing of his hammer drove each nail deep into the door jamb.
“Upstairs,” Jim commanded. “Porch roof will be the best place to make our stand.”
“Duh,” Pattie teased.
“I was talking to Earl.” Jim guided them to the only window of the house that hadn’t been boarded over. He ushered them out then passed the few guns still remaining inside and countless boxes of ammunition through.
Earl was amazed to see the same exact scene playing out in both directions as far as he could see. If they were screwing with him, they were being very thorough- too thorough. His eyes studied the assortment of guns laid out on the roof and leaned against the house. “You’ve got enough artillery here to take down a small nation.”
“I just hope it’s enough,” Pattie grumbled. Butterflies danced in her stomach. It’d been a long time since she’d taken part in the annual ritual. She hoped she hadn’t lost her edge.
“Pick your poison,” Jim insisted. “Oh and always aim for the head. Between the eyes is best.”
Earl picked up a shotgun and turned it in his hands. He looked at Pattie, who shook her head. “Those are for when they get closer.”
Earl nodded and looked the guns over again. He laid the shotgun down and picked through a few others. Eventually his hands settled upon a hunting rifle. He smiled as he picked it up. The weight of the weapon reminded him of his younger days in the army. “Now what?”
“Now we wait.” Pattie smiled nervously and cracked the top on the beer sitting beside her. All the while, her eyes studied the tree line.
“You sure that’s a good idea?” Giving themselves a handicap seemed like the worst possible thing to do if the stories they were feeding him turned out to be true.
“It makes pulling the trigger a bit less difficult. Might screw with your aim, but it helps take away the emotional block,” Jim answered for Pattie and popped the top on his own can.
“This is all a joke right? There aren’t really any zombies coming,” Earl insisted as he sipped his beer. His eyes remained glued to the tree line beyond the makeshift barrier. He didn’t want to believe zombies could be anything more than a myth, but he also didn’t know why the entire town would go to such lengths to mess with his head.
Jim anxiously looked at his watch. “Couple more minutes, give or take. Maybe we’ll get lucky and they won’t come this year.”
“You heard it. They’re definitely coming. Maybe we’ll get lucky and they won’t be smarter this year,” Pattie said optimistically, even though she didn’t believe her own words.
“Smarter?” Earl questioned. The whole thing sounded like a bunch of bullshit. He wondered why he kept playing along.
“They get smarter every year. Eventually they’re going to destroy this whole damn town if it keeps up. I think that’s the way he wanted it.” Jim laughed, mostly to hide the fact that he was scared shitless that this would be the year. He downed the rest of his beer in one gulp and threw the can off the roof. He sighed and looked at his watch again. The impatience swelled in the pit of his stomach. He was itching to put a bullet in as many of the bastards as he could. His fear would wane when the bullets started flying, just like every other year.
“The way who wanted it?” Earl questioned, still sipping his beer and watching the trees, wondering when the whole thing would be exposed as some ultra elaborate hoax in his honor.
“The devil,” Pattie said so softly Earl barely heard her.
He turned toward her ready to laugh. The look on her face said it wasn’t the time for laughter. He bit his lip to keep it in. A weak smile graced the woman’s red lips as she fumbled with one of the rifles. Earl thought she’d never been more beautiful.
A gunshot broke the overall silence of the street.
“Take that, ya bastard,” someone yelled in triumph.
“One down, several hundred to go,” Jim said solemnly and lifted the barrel of his own gun.
Countless dark shadows darting through the trees caught Earl’s attention. He hadn’t been prepared for the day’s happenings to be anything more than a joke. He groaned as the first of the monstrosities broke the tree line. It ran full tilt toward the barrier. A gun cracked the air beside Earl’s head. He looked up at his wife staring down the barrel of her gun. His mouth hung wide open as he watched her squeeze the trigger time after time. Beside her, Jim did the same.
“How about a little help, babe?” Pattie suggested without even looking at him.
Earl stood up and leveled his gun to take aim. There were too many to quickly choose a single target. Eventually he settled on one and tried to track it as it ran toward the blue car parked in the middle of the street. The speed of the encroaching creatures surprised him. Movies had always portrayed zombies as slow moving imbeciles. He found himself instantly hating the creators of every zombie flick he’d ever seen. They’d taught him nothing of the real thing. He decided then and there that if he ever met one of the fucks responsible for those movies he’d knock their teeth down their throat. “If you make it out of this alive,” a voice inside his head added.
“My God,” he mumbled and squeezed the trigger. The bullet whizzed past the creatures head, nearly a full foot off target. It stopped, groaned loudly and looked directly at him. It’s hate filled eyes locked with his. In the creature’s dead eyes he saw only an endless pit of rage. In that moment, he found himself unable to pull the trigger a second time. The back of the thing’s head exploded in a cloud of red onto the one behind it.
“You’re welcome,” his wife said with a smile, still shooting into the oncoming horde. Judging from the smirk on her face, Earl thought she rather enjoyed shooting people in the head.
“Faster than you expected?” Jim asked as he dropped the first gun and picked up a second. He fired again without giving Earl a chance to answer the question.
“They get faster every year too,” Pattie almost laughed as she moved to her second gun. “Did we forget to mention that?” She’d been gone too long. They hadn’t been near this hard to hit the last time she’d taken them on. Her mind insisted she’d never be able to keep up. “Shut up and keep shooting,” she whispered to herself.
Earl squeezed off another three rounds, none hit their intended targets.
“If you aren’t going to help shoot them at least reload the guns or something,” Pattie suggested with a wink and a laugh. She knew how to light a fire under him when necessary.
He laughed and focused on his breathing. The next shot found a home deep inside one of the creatures. Its head snapped back when the bullet penetrated. Its body slammed into the barrier with a sickening thud. He watched the empty space above the barrier for just a second to make sure it didn’t get back up before taking aim at another.
One of the disturbingly fast zombies vaulted over the blue car and dashed onto the porch. Even over the moans and gunshots Earl could hear the scratching below. In his mind’s eye he saw it trying to rip the plywood from the large picture window beside the door. The unnerving scratching quickly turned into pounding as the thing tried to gain entry into the well secured home.
He pulled the trigger repeatedly. The gun spewed its well aimed bullets into the onrushing horde of the hell spawn. Three more of the creatures dropped before the gun clicked. Empty. Earl dropped it and picked up another.
Beside him, Pattie dropped her second rifle and moved on to a third. Jim fired away into the onrushing crowd at the far end of the roof.
The barrier didn’t hold long. Within minutes the fronts of the homes lining the street were swarmed with the demon creatures. The foul scent of rotting flesh enveloped the town. Earl gagged when the stench, so thick he could taste it, first hit him…
There you have it, the first half(ish) of Zombie Tree. Want to know how Earl and company fare as the invasion progresses? You’ll need to pick up a copy using one of the following links to find that out. You didn’t really expect me to give away all of my secrets did you?