Dani placed a finger to her lips and pulled her hand away from Sandy’s mouth.
“Sandy, I need you to help me here.” She turned to look out the door, in the direction of the rest of the facility. “Can you go to the fence at the end of the units there, and make a lot of noise? We can pull them away.”
Sandy looked shaken. “But what if they climb over?”
“They can’t climb. They’re not smart enough for that, have you seen them walk and stumble around?”
Sandy nodded. Dani pulled a screwdriver from the hip loop of her jeans and handed it to her.
“Take this just in case. A quick jab to the eye socket should work, especially if they are tangled in the fencing.”
Sandy held the screwdriver in her palms, noticing the sticky, dry bloodstain on it. She wiped her hand that touched the metal tip on the edge of the counter.
Dani turned her attention back to Bob who was still on the ground exhausted from his tussle with the ghoul. She began to edge toward the door to grab him but turned her gaze back to Sandy.
“Aim for the eyes.”
She dashed out the door.
Bob was getting far too old for this shit.
He laid there on the warm concrete in the evening sun. It would have been a beautiful sunset, for sure, but he was far too concerned with his heart pounding its way out of his ribcage.
Beside him lay the corpse of what used to be a human. The stench was horrific, but not unfamiliar. He’d found himself in close proximity to the corpses of actual people back in Vietnam. Presumably good people, when he thought back to it in his bitter, painful dreams.
The smell of death was nothing new for Bob Aaron Clark.
He lay there panting, staring up toward the darkening sky, when Danielle Kim jogged up and stood over him.
“Bob, get up, let me help you.”
He grunted as he rose onto his ass, holding out his hand. From there, she was deceptively strong in helping him to his feet.
“What’s wrong, baby girl?” he coughed.
She began to pull him toward the building but glanced back behind her. Her eyes showed fear. Familiar fear. The sound of clanging metal filled the air.
He turned his head as he stumbled towards the door noticing two of the undead bastards only a dozen feet away.
Back inside the door, Dani grabbed the bloody letter opener from Bob’s hand. Before he could protest she said, “Grab your gun.”
He cursed his old age as he jogged up the stairs to the apartment to find his gun. He should have carried it with him in the first place.
He was getting too goddamn old.
Her forties had slowed her down tremendously and Sandy Gunderson was not having it. She jogged just past the fence, seeing the young girl, Danielle, help Bob up from the ground. Behind them were two approaching monsters.
Sandy jammed the tip of the screwdriver between the spokes of the fence and let the metal of the tool collide with each and every metal bar. The sound of clanging was loud and sure enough, it seemed to draw the monsters in her direction.
Her stomach grumbled from the stress. The kid had put her in danger.
Dani stood just out of sight from the shattered glass door and watched as Sandy did her part. Sandy rapidly ran out of fencing and vanished behind one of the first storage units that made up the northern wall. Things were silent for a moment and Dani shifted uncomfortably in her position as the ghouls began to search for signs of the living. They did not immediately turn toward the doorway, which was of a little comfort.
Then Dani heard the banging and rattling from further away down the property. It sounded as though Sandy were kicking at the doors. Soon she was yelling.
Each “here” was punctuated by the rattle of the sliding doors. Dani ducked behind the doorframe again as the ghouls began to turn. One let out a raspy moan. The ghoul’s stiff body shuddered and accelerated toward the source of the sound, the second ghoul stumbling after moments later.
They rounded the outer corner, following the sounds. Dani watched them go out of sight just as Bob wheezed his way down the stairs, his shotgun in hand.
The plan made Bob nervous, especially because Danielle was the one who would need to park the moving truck. He intended to protest but Danielle pointed out that he had the gun. He’d have her back.
He accepted that.
He started the generator just as she turned the ignition on the moving truck. The gate clanked open, making a tremendous amount of noise, and Bob drew his firearm, waiting for the return of the rotten bastards.
The moving truck bounced as it rolled over the gate track. He watched, almost helplessly as Dani drove the truck into the street and made a sloppy three-point turn.
She should have just backed it in.
He watched Danielle back into the lot and caught her grim expression and she gunned the gas just enough to get the truck onto the curb in front of the building. For a moment his breath was caught up in his throat as it looked like the truck might tip over, but it did not. With the truck safely in proximity, Bob turned his attention to the corner where the rotters had disappeared. Sure enough, the sounds of the gate and truck had lured them back. The two stumbled from around the corner as Dani continued to reverse the truck.
“Danielle, hurry the fuck up!”
The stumbling gaits of the ghouls were slow and Bob took steady aim with the shotgun. It was no good from this distance, but he felt relieved to have the weapon.
At least until the gate began to close.
Sandy could not believe that Bob had left the gate wide open and she quickly set about closing it like it should have been. Danielle would have no problem going in through the shattered glass door anyway.
What was needed was to make sure none of these things could get inside.
Bob grabbed at the gate and shook it violently. He looked angry.
“Sandy, what the hell are you doin’?”
“Closing the gate. We can’t let those things inside.”
“What about Danielle?”
“She can go through the door. Squeeze behind the truck.”
Bob stared at her as he opened the gate again. Sandy took a few steps back, nervous about the gate. The plan seemed to be working, but a lack of a barrier was not ideal.
“Don’t open the gate, Bob. They might get in.”
“Fuck off, Sandy,” he muttered.
With the truck finally parked as flush to the building as she could manage, Dani lept out from the passenger side, keys in hand, and slammed the door shut. There were three ghouls now, one had arrived from a cluster toward the main drag of the town. She paused for a moment. They were very close. Their lolling gates seemed so non-threatening – almost absurd to watch.
“Get the hell over here!”
Dani looked at Bob, who had his shotgun at the ready, violently jerking his head back over his shoulder.
Dani got the hell over.
Back inside the shopfront, moments later, the trio stood, staring at the shattered door with a moving truck parked out front. Bob had already blown the heads off the three ghouls once the gate was shut. Dani had offered to get them with the screwdriver, but Bob insisted. Sandy said nothing. For now, the immediate threat was handled.
For the long term, though…
“What if they crawl under the truck?” Sandy asked, her voice a hoarse whisper.
Dani shook her head. She’d been watching the ghouls for a while since the first ones were wandering the town. They weren’t smart. Bob seemed to sniff and cast a pointed glance at Sandy, who shrunk under his brief gaze.
Bob was the first to speak. “They’re too dumb for that. I don’t think we need to worry about that. We need to worry about one wedging itself in from under.”
Dani ran her sweaty palms through her black hair. “Our best bet is to seal up the window and lock up the building for now, just in case,” she added.
Sandy grunted. Dani saw her about to raise a protest, but it seemed that she agreed.
“Well, I am going to pack a few essentials if I am giving up the apartment.”
Sandy vanished up the stairs. Bob was already approaching a small, unused display area where the moving supplies were stored for sale. Dani followed. After about twenty minutes they had managed to tape up the windows and the shattered glass door with cardboard boxes. They had double-layered the cardboard over the door. For good measure, they moved a desk from the office to a position in front of the doorway as well. It wasn’t a great barrier, but if no ghoul needed to poke around, they would be fine.
As far as they had guessed, if no noise came from behind the cardboard-covered door, the ghouls wouldn’t approach.
Seemingly content with the handiwork, Bob whistled and put a reaffirming hand on Dani’s shoulder. Sandy came downstairs with a pair of suitcases.
Bob scratched his chin. “We have a couple of RVs that were being stored here, I can open them up for you two. Sound good?”
Sandy shrugged. Dani nodded. Bob handed Dani the shop keys.
“I think you daddy left his gun in that safe in the office.”
Dani looked puzzled. “I thought he kept it in his unit?”
Sandy shrugged. “I have no idea. I assumed so, but yes, your father did have a safe in the office. I don’t know the combination.”
Sandy and Bob stepped out through the side door into the storage facility. Dani made her way to the office, opened the small closet, and knelt down to access the safe.
The combination was her birthday. Lucky.
She pulled out a small 9mm, unloaded. She tucked it into the waist of her pants. She grabbed the small box of bullets that had been locked in with the gun.
In less trying times that would have been a bad idea. She was thankful that her father had done something so foolish.
The RV seemed comfortable enough. The air was stale and there was a layer of dust, but it was generally clean.
Dani sat on the step, smoking. Bob was kind enough to give her a little something to take the edge off of the day. She wasn’t really much of a smoker but had dabbled here and there. It seemed now was the perfect time to take it up again.
The year 2000 had been an absolute clusterfuck so far. The Y2K thing? Total horseshit. The dead rising – who had even considered that?
She let out a cloud of smoke into the chilly night air. The sun was gone now and her eyes had gotten quite effective at adapting to the dark. The RV was parked near the southern edge of the property, in an open area, accompanied by the other trailers and the boats she saw earlier.
Over the fence, just past the old train tracks, there were some track homes. She stared at them, noticing movement in one of the windows in the dark. It was a tacky tan two-story with fake green slats built around the window.
She stared hard into the window doing her best to make out some sort of detail. After a while, the figure moved close enough to the window for her to see that it was long dead and walking. She took another puff and noticed the ghoul had stopped moving. Soon, thin, greasy hands began to slap the glass. The rattle was audible.
She stamped out her cigarette, took one last look at the window, and shut the RV door.
She threw herself onto a dusty bed and curled up into the fetal position. Soon the tears came and she buried her face into the pillow.
Thank you for reading the sixth installment of the Haunted MTL original series, The Dead Life. Please share your thoughts about the story with us.
Nightmarish Nature: Terrifying Tardigrades
OK so I lied. The dust hadn’t fully settled in Cozmic Debris, the space opry I’d written over the course of this month (you can catch up here with Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). In fact, it’s blown over into Nightmarish Nature for one last final huzzah…
The Last Chapter of Cozmic Debris
Kara-2-6000 had just signed on with the Voyager probe and was eagerly engaged in her first mission, en route to Mars with more components for the terraforming effort. It seemed like a pretty simple gig, cleaning up the space dust that accumulates on the vessel after landing on the red planet. She had been trained to keep her eye on her work and pay attention to details, that the dirt tended to collect in unusual ways in strange places, and that it was critical she contain and seal all of it to keep the spacecraft in proper working order. She entrusted the computer to keep the vessel on track, as it was preoccupied with doing and never engaged otherwise. No matter. She’d never been to space before and the newness of it had her rapt attention. What stories she would have to tell once she paid off her student loans and got her human body back, for surely Mars must be an exciting place…
And now for Nightmarish Nature…
So, this time on Nightmarish Nature we’re visiting Terrifying Tardigrades… Wait, seriously who comes up with this stuff anyway? Tardigrades are actually kinda cute, at least in the nerd fandom sense, and are remarkable in their ability to survive and withstand crazy adverse conditions. For all that the AI art generator doesn’t seem to have much of a clue what their anatomy is like, they really don’t do anything that scary, unless you’re a yummy little single celled critter that lives in moss in which case pretty much everything has it out for you… Oh, I see that the Cozmic Debris space opry usurped this segment. May as well run with it then.
So what’s so terrifying about tardigrades anyway?
So I don’t actually have much to say about tardigrades except that they started this whole crazy journey here on Haunted MTL. A Facebook friend posted a link to the Ze Frank True Facts video on them (linked here if the below video doesn’t load), and I was instantly hooked. It’s a great series and is part of the inspiration behind Nightmarish Nature here on HauntedMTL. So if you like learning about all kind of crazy animal facts and nature weirdness, feel free to check it out. I will mention, the show contains adult themes and is designed for (im)mature audiences, so keep that in mind as you foray into the freaky side of nature, literally.
To more of my Haunted MTL series on Nightmarish Nature about things that are a bit more terrifying, please feel free to revisit previous segments here:
Cozmic Debris: Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 3: The Dust Settles
Here’s the third installment of our space opry. For those of you keeping track, here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Thank you for following along and please be sure to keep all hands, feet, tentacles and appendages tucked safely in the overhead bins; just sit back and enjoy the ride. Because, this time, the dust settles.
It had been well over a month since Trent-2-6000 had released Ayarvenia into the Mars probe. She was a mischievous creature and flirted with him incessantly, gliding effortlessly between red cloud and ghost girl. She also managed to avoid notice by the computer, as Trent had made it abundantly clear that if the system became aware of her, he would be forced to put her back in containment, as his sole purpose aboard the spacecraft was to sweep up and trap the dust, which she still qualified as.
Ayarvenia would tease him, flitting to and fro among the static debris and dirt that still settled into every nook and cranny. How was it possible for him to be seeing so much grime still, anyway? It had been months since they had left Mars and yet Trent was finding more and more Mars dust on a daily basis; it was as if they just left yesterday. He had finally finished clearing out the computer room for the second time that day and was preparing the waste containment units for their eventual removal when he caught Ayarvenia swirling about one of the clear acrylic domes from his previous sweep, which was hermetically-sealed and ready to be brought safely back to the confines of Earth and the research laboratory.
The red cloud girl spun her way into the latch mechanism and popped it open right before Trent’s robotic eyes. The dust within was sucked out into the Voyager probe to be quickly and quietly dispersed yet again; some of it was even absorbed into Ayarvenia herself. She then latched the dome shut again and left it at the ready, as found. The container sat empty, a shell discarded.
How could he have been so naïve? It all began to make sense now; all of those sealed packages he had so painstakingly catalogued and prepared for their eventual arrival were still just empty. All of his hard work really had been for naught; he was just sweeping up the same dirt piles again and again only to have them released from the trash to disperse and begin the cycle anew. He grumbled under his breath and Ayarvenia froze in midair. She slowly whirled around and sent a lone tendril towards Trent, forming into her beautiful face as she turned to face him. She looked slightly distraught and more than a little agitated, but that melted and gave way to her usual snarky sweetness as she neared.
“Hey there, robo-boy,” she said, cooing as her unblinking eyes met his. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I imagine not,” Trent replied sternly. “What are you doing?”
“Oh… nothing really. Just checking up on things here. I was waiting around for you is all,” she hemmed and hawed.
“Did you find everything to your liking?” Trent snipped. “No particulate out of place or anything?”
“Everything seems okay, I guess… I’ll just leave you to it then.” The ghost girl drifted towards the far door.
“Not so fast…” Trent proclaimed. “I need to know what you’ve really been up to here. I saw you release the Mars dust from that containment unit. You know I’ve been sweeping out this room over and over for the past two days; just how much of my work are you undoing?”
”Work? Work… You call this work!” Ayarvenia’s voice raised. She was truly agitated now. “You’re blowing off my entire being without a second thought, trapping it in these nasty clear coffins, and all you can think about is whether or not you’re fulfilling your job?!”
“I… I just want to be done with this so I can get my body back and get on with my life,” Trent retorted.
“Well, Trent Just-Trent, let me break it to you, then. You’re not getting your body back, robo-boy. What makes you think they’d bother to save a lowlife human body like yours in the first place? These assignments are always dead-ends. I’ve seen them come and go… Makes no difference, in the end the researchers get what they want, and that’s more of my Mars dust for their experiments. We’re in the same boat schnookums, you and I,” the ghost girl blew hastily. “Yeah that’s right, you heard me. You’re not getting your body back. And the way things have been going around here, with you all so feverishly sweeping up every little bit of dirt you find, neither am I.”
“Wait, how would you know anything about that?” Trent stammered.
“I know things. I’ve been around. I can see and hear and feel everything all at once. Part of me is still on Mars, part of me is here in this spaceship, and part of me is on your so-called Earth, trapped in the lab catacombs awaiting who knows what fate…” Ayarvenia sighed. “I’ve tried to do what I can to save my own skin, literally. I’ve flirted with every deadbeat janitor they send on these missions. And you all just keep coming back for more…”
Suddenly a voice boomed from behind in monosyllabic chatter, “Dust-Buster, what have you done? Clean that up, now!” The camera eye that monitored the computer’s every task shifted focus to Trent and Ayarvenia and zoomed into an angry point. “Now!” it wailed. The computer was on to them.
“Shit,” Trent muttered.
“It’s okay, I’ll go willingly,” Ayarvenia whispered as she sucked herself into the ready containment unit and locked it. “Wait it out and release me again later.” She winked and settled into static suspension.
The camera eye scanned everything: the waste containment unit, the dust, Trent-2-6000… Trent froze and tried not to appear guilty. “Dust-Buster, you have one and only one job aboard this vessel. You are not doing that job. There is more dust here now than there was a week ago. You have failed,” the computer droned on. “The penalty for failure is… the airlock…”
“Wait, what?” Trent shouted, exasperated. He hadn’t even realized that was a thing. Yet another gripe for the school career guidance counselor…
“Oh no, not again,” Ayarvenia whispered. “I won’t let them take you, robo-boy Trent Just-Trent. I don’t want to lose you, not another one.”
“Silence!” the computer screeched. “You have sealed your own fates.”
The floor beneath Trent and the container began to quake and rumble. Partitions withdrew radially to a small circular channel beneath, a tube that fed into the lower part of the ship, presumably to be shot out into space. Trent-2-6000 tried to grab hold of the receding floor but his robot body was just too ungainly. He managed to wedge himself into the chasm opening only to see the waste containment dome carrying Ayarvenia slide past, her face peering up at him helplessly. He reached for her to no avail and tumbled after.
The two of them shot down the chute and through a series of rapidly opening and closing doors until the last airlock opened into the vast dark nothingness of space. Pinpoints of distant light greeted them from afar. Trent managed to latch onto the container just as they shot out into the void. The Voyager probe withdrew into the distance. The darkness enveloped the two of them. They were alone.
“Wait, I’m not dead,” Trent exclaimed.
“Of course not, silly,” Ayarvenia answered. “You’re a robot. You were made to withstand this, so that you could operate in places where there is no atmosphere.”
Trent gazed into her eyes as they floated along without purpose or reason, just more cosmic debris now.
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way.
And the stars look very different today. – David Bowie, Space Oddity
So that was Cozmic Debris… Illustrations were generated using the Cosmic template in NightCafe AI art generator. My favorite AI images are the ones that are substantially wrong, making weird mistakes in ways that a person wouldn’t make. So the tardigrades were especially fun, because it doesn’t have a good enough sense for their structure to render them sensibly. Kind of like elephants. The algorithms respond to different cues. Does it really matter how many limbs or trunks or tusks these things are supposed to have anyway…?
Cozmic Debris, Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 2: Trent-2-6000
In case you missed the first segment of this space opry (in the style of 2001 Space Odyssey), please feel free to check it out here. And now, here’s the actual story as told to me by Trent-2-6000 after the last deep consideration of tardigrades and life and dust careening through space. Maybe.
Trent-2-6000 sighed. He swept more random Mars dirt into his vacuum-hermetically sealed containment unit and went about his business on the probe. Actually, this was his business on the probe, and it was dreadfully dull. Space was supposed to be this exciting new frontier, this brave new world… but it really wasn’t any different than life back on Earth. The newness had long since worn off several trips ago, and the slow passage of the years was beginning to get to him. How long had it been now? And here he was, still playing clean up crew. He was actually sort of surprised that they couldn’t get a robot to do this job – oh wait. Sigh again.
Trent kept forgetting that he was, in fact, a robot now. There just weren’t many reminders out here, of his old body, of his old life, of Earth, of anything really… Just floating along, this tin can became all he knew; time and space just kind of stood still in the periphery. His currently lifeless body was submerged in cryo-crypto-cyano-freeze (or whatever they called it) while he worked off the payments to resuscitate it. His robot body was stiff and unaccommodating, not at all what he’d pictured when he enlisted for the Mars missions to pay off the triple-interest-bearing student loan debts incurred in human form. He could have gone military, but when he signed on for this assignment, bright eyed and bushy-tailed at graduation, he was hoping for something a bit more Captain Kirk or Han Solo or at any rate notably less Wall-E. But it just didn’t pan out that way and now here he was, traveling back and forth on the Mars Voyager, cleaning up space grime. So much debt… so much dirt. He was going to have to have a word with the job placement division at the school once he was done with all of this, assuming that the career guidance counselor who talked him into this was even still there.
It was painfully lonely out here in space. It often seemed that Trent was the only cognitive entity on this vessel, though the computer technically qualified. Trent’s duty was to keep everything clean and tidy so that the computer could do its job efficiently and effectively without being bothered to clear the space grime itself. Apparently that work was beneath it, actually quite literally since it wasn’t hooked into the mechanics needed to engage in such tasks anyway. It was programmed with a single role at hand, getting to and from Mars and conducting the research as requested, and the computer made it abundantly clear that had no time for idle chitchat with the janitorial bottom-feeders working to earn their freedom. It generally ignored Trent unless there was something specific that needed to be attended to. And then it was just “Dust-Buster, do this” or “Dust-Buster do that…”
Sometimes the dust was hard to catch. It settled oddly between spaces, like cracks in sliding doorways and computer keyboards and battery packs and so on. Sometimes it seemed to fabricate places to hide in that weren’t previously obvious. It drilled down in the interstices as if it had some unseen purpose all its own. Trent wondered why there were even so many nooks and crannies for it to hide in since this wasn’t a manned vessel and no actual crew were aboard to use things like keyboards. Hell, those had been outdated for well over a century now – just how old was this spacecraft anyway? No matter, better to just focus on the work. He swept more debris into a containment unit. As he did so, he was sure he heard something, like a tiny almost inaudible severely muffled scream.
He looked into the clear acrylic dome at the dirt. He could sense it looking back at him, waiting. Surely he was imagining things. His mind suddenly reeled to Horton the Elephant declaring, a person’s a person no matter how small. But Dr. Seuss didn’t make any more sense here in space than back on Earth after the last World War had decimated all the oceans and there were no more free trees or clovers for such a speck of dust as Whoville to land on – everything was held tightly under lock and key, blockaded away to be dispensed as the all-controlling government saw fit. Hell, people’s real bodies met pretty much the same fate upon adulthood, at least as far as the masses were concerned anyway, and many lived their entire lives as robots with their human vessels left in catatonic stasis. Trent shook his dark musings off and continued on his one and only real job. But the feeling that the dust was looking at him was still unsettling. In fact the dust wasn’t settling at all, it was swirling and ebbing about the containment unit in cloudy eddies, like some kind of strange iron-red cloud apparition or ghost. It began to take shape. It formed into lips, which parted to speak.
“Hello there mechanical being.”
Trent stared at it quizzically as a long bout of silence passed. The pursed lips seemed to await a response, but from whom?
“I’m talking to you,” it persisted.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you had meant to address me,” Trent 2-6000 stammered, “I’m not wholly used to being mechanical. This robot body, it’s different than the one I had back in school… I was still just a boy then; they let us grow up in the system until we age out,” he spoke dreamily, distracted by reflecting on more interesting times.
“Is there someone else here?” the dust piqued hopefully, as if growing bored with conversing with the young janitor and hoping to speak with his superior.
Trent glanced over at the computer, which seemed to be busy compounding equations in its free time, like always. “No,” he replied, “just me.”
“Ok, well… Then, dear mechanical being, would it be possible for you to free me?”
“Wait, what? No, absolutely not,” Trent was taken aback again. “My sole role on this mission is to sweep up the space dirt so that it doesn’t contaminate any of the equipment or settle into places it shouldn’t be. It, um you, must stay contained, as per my orders. It’s out of my hands… er reach.”
“What are you afraid of?” the red cloud quipped as it began to swirl into the shape of a beautiful female face around the mouth that it had already formed, lips plumping and parting slightly. “What, exactly, do you fear that I might do?” it insinuated slyly.
“Ummm, I don’t know,” Trent-2-6000 stared into the acrylic dome at the beautiful half-formed human-ghost face staring back at him. “I was unaware that you could do that, whatever you just did, so the possibilities boggle the mind…”
“I can do a lot more…” the ghost girl interrupted, her voice lilting playfully. “What’s your name robo-boy?”
“That, that’s probably classified information… But it’s Trent. Just Trent,” he stammered. It had seemed like an eternity since he had laid eyes upon a girl, and now he was becoming rather sadly smitten. By… a cloud of dust. He sighed again.
“Well then, Trent Just-Trent. Any chance you could let me out of this box?” The dust smiled coyly.
“I really shouldn’t…”
“My name’s Ayarvenia,” the dust girl interjected. “I’ll make it worth your while…” The apparition winked.
Trent glanced back at the computer, which was still engaged in its own computing. Sigh. “Oh Hell, yeah, I guess… Ay-ur-veenia… Just don’t get into anything you shouldn’t or it’ll be my shiny metal ass on the line,” he said as he released the containment lever and slid the lid off of the dome.
Please return next Sunday for the exciting conclusion to this space opry story.