The Usher's House
A House Too Far
“Well, that could have gone better, yeah?” snapped the older woman in front of me, splattered in mud from her mire-caked hair to her filth-encrusted boots.
I looked past her to the old weather-beaten, two-story clapboard house squatting darkly atop the hill. A huge, black cloud hung frighteningly low, with only a sliver of bright blue in the north to remind me that it was daytime. A chill wind bit my face and cut through the fabric of my faded, patched trousers. My hooded jacket on the other hand, worked as advertised, keeping out the bitter gusts but not retaining enough heat for comfort. Familiar odors saturated the icy breeze; the smell of blood and the metallic tang of gun-smoke mixed with the promise of yet more rain on the way.
Also, someone in the house was banging something repeatedly, like an impudent toddler
The hill was blanketed with waving grass, dotted with mire where footsteps had torn open the soft, rain-soaked earth. Muddy corpses littered the hill, only partially hidden by the grass. Some lay face down and serene where death had come quick, others were crooked and twisted, contorted by the agonies of a lingering death.
People prowled the hill, clothing crudely patched by rags or simply left frayed and holed. They were armed with rifles or shotguns, plus a few with just handguns. Their faces were drawn with stress and hunger even as they knelt or bent down in attempts to comfort the wounded.
“I see you’re a free man now,” the woman continued, “Sorry for your loss, Edgar.”
At this, I glanced down. The woman lying at my feet was beautiful, even without makeup. With no wounds visible from this angle, it appeared as if she had just curled up in the grass to for a nap. But I had already checked her vitals; she was gone.
“She wasn’t my wife, you know,” I noted. “Not really.”
“Seriously Jolene. Melody crawled into my tent one night and -- bam! Everyone treated us like a couple.”
Jolene muttered something about “the Chief’s baby daughter” as she reached into a pocket of her much-repaired coat and brought out something in her fist. She let it drop dramatically, but retained the glinting bauble with a golden chain. Said bauble was a heart-shaped locket with a prancing unicorn embossed thereupon.
“What are you doing with The Locket?” I snarled, indignant. “It don’t belong to you!”
“Well, it belonged to the Chief, right? Then the Chief, he passed it to his oldest daughter as he was dying, and then…”
“I asked why you have Elisabeth’s locket Jolene, not for a history lecture.”
“Don’t be a clown, Edgar. This ain’t the time for your jokes. Liz… um, the Queen is… well, she’s gone yeah? And… well some of us believe you should have this.”
“’Some of us?’”
“A lot of us. You only lost that election by two votes, yeah? And both of them are dead now, so... yeah. Hell Eddie, if we had listen to you, this…” here she gestured at the carnage around her, “…would never have happened.”
“Yeah,” I replied, nodding. “I warned her… Royal Highness… whatever, what’s done is done.”
“It’s not a total loss,” a young man announced, appearing as if by magic with a heavy pistol in his thigh holster. He wore a fine motorcycle jacket in excellent shape, plus he carried the matching helmet in his hand. “One third loss means one third more for the rest of us, yeah?”
“Tommy!” Jolene shouted, aghast. “Show some respect, you snot-nosed brat!”
Frankly, I felt the same way Tommy did about “more for the rest of us”. I just wasn’t impolitic enough to say it out loud, let alone with a smile on my face.
“Chill out Mom,” Tommy retorted, still smiling. “We’re all thinking it.”
Jolene inhaled, but I cut her off, demanding, “Put the locket on me.”
Jolene squelched her retort and draped the golden chain around my neck. Tommy added eager but unnecessary adjustment to the chain while smoothing out my jacket. Then lifted I my voice.
“Doc!” I shouted, and everyone paused to look in my direction.
In the meantime an older, bearded man stood up out of the grass where he’d been kneeling next to a body, his ungloved hands bloodied to the elbow.
“Yes Edgar… um, Chief?” Doc replied.
I began barking orders, pointing as needed.
“Take your laundry marker and put triage codes on the forehead of all the casualties, just like you did at Lake Schuster! And curb your impartiality Doctor, because enemy wounded go to the bottom of the list.”
“Ah… sure thing, Chief!”
“Team Matt, get the wounded inside that house before it rains. Once all the wounded are inside, put the dead over there by that pecan tree! Team Hannah, you’re on security. Team Jamal, go back, help Team Heather strike the camp, and then bring the kids and all our stuff forward. Everyone else, follow me!”
At that, I, Jolene, Tommy and three others surged forward toward the house on the hill.
Voices rang out… “He’s wearing the Locket!”… “Edgar’s in charge now?” …“Sure, why not? ... “Is she really dead? The Queen is dead?” …“Who the hell put you in charge Edgar, you…?”
“I did!” Jolene insisted, striding beside me. “You got a problem with that, Joe? Any of you losers got a problem with that?”
“What about the loot?” another voice cried.
That particular query demanded my personal response.
“Anything belonging to our dead goes to their family just like always,” I explained. “As for the enemy, Team Matt can loot them after they move our wounded and dead as I ordered. Pile that loot over there by that… that woodpile next to the house. Leve it there till I divide it. And don’t worry, I’ll divide it fair. You got that, Matt? Hold on, where’s Matt?”
“Matt’s dead,” his younger brother reported.
“Then you take over the team!”
“Really? Yes sir!”
On my way to the house, I opened the locket. There inside was a much younger Chief – known as Justin Goodkind in the Before -- flanked by his smiling wife, and with their two young daughters in front of them. The girls in particular seemed downright spastic with glee. With Elisabeth and Melody’s passing during that day’s fight, everyone in the picture was now officially dead. Too bad.
As we approached the house, the infernal banging within got louder and louder.
“Bob,” growled Tommy, eyeing the approaching house with a shudder. “I always thought this place was creepy.”
“Wait,” I asked. “You know who lived here? I mean, in the Before?”
“Sure. Robert Abernathy. Really old dude. Used to be the usher at our church.”
“Your church had an usher? What is this, the 1800’s?”
“Yeah,” Jolene added. “We old fashioned that way.”
I clicked the locket closed as we entered the house. The interior was quite dim –no candles or lanterns were lit. The dying embers in the brick fireplace failed to give heat. The wood plank living room floor and its outdated furniture were clean, aside from the bits of glass and bloodstains. The building creaked and moaned eerily in the growing wind, with a wooden shutter, hanging loose by a rusted hinge, slammed repeatedly against the side of house – that’s where all the banging was coming from. There were three bodies in the room; one each by a smashed window and one lying on the couch where it seemed someone tried to operate on him.
“Not bad,” Tommy noted, “Got to be better than those tents.”
“I’m not so sure,” his mother replied. “There’s water stains in the ceiling over buckets on the floor. This place don’t look all that waterproof, Chief.”
“Yes, and the bullet holes and smashed windows don’t help,” I announced. “Jolene, Tommy, and I will search upstairs. The rest of you clear this level. You find anything, take it to the woodpile.”
There were two “Yes sirs” and a “Sure thing, Chief!” before the three others scattered.
Tommy, Jolene and I mounted the creaking staircase and ultimately found Elisabeth, the Queen herself, lying on a bed in the master bedroom with befouled hands folded over her bleeding abdomen. I took note of the scarf around her neck.
“Help… me!” she gasped.
“Look at all the people you got kilt, you stupid cow!” Jolene spat, as we approached the bed, “And for what? Ain’t spit in here!”
“What are you doing with Daddy’s locket, Edgar?” Elisabeth panted, her pretty face a mask of pain and anger. “I’m still in charge, you clown!”
“Maybe not,” I quipped, then I grabbed a tail of her scarf in both hands pulled.
Queen Elisabeth tried to scramble out of bed, but Tommy held her down for me. She gagged, kicking spastically, clawed hands alternately raging at me and at the scarf about her neck till she broke all her fingernails. Eventually her struggles ceased and she went limp.
“Take her down to the pecan tree with the rest of them,” I sighed. “And for the record…”
“She was killed by the enemy? Duh.”
“Tommy’s right,” Jolene added. “We ain’t seen nothin’!”
Later that night, the deluge of Noah pounded the old house. Sheets of rain, illuminated steel-grey in frequent lightning, blew in through the empty windows. Women and men worked tirelessly to keep plastic sheeting over the glassless holes, but the relentless winds frequently tore the plastic from the nails used to keep the sheets in place.
As large as the house was, it was crowded, from attic to basement, by the Family. We inhaled the stink of packed, unwashed bodies and shuddered in the cold and wet. I recently had the banging shutter removed – it was driving me crazy – but that didn’t keep the old, loose timbers in the house from moaning and squealing in the howling gale as if the whole building was possessed of demons. Yet as bad as the inside tormented us, we could hear how much worse it was outside.
Jolene and I sat at the kitchen table, as that room was the driest in the house. A solar lantern sat on the table, giving cold, wan light. It had been overcast all day, such that precious little power remained in the lamp.
“Wounded?” I asked, loud enough to be heard over the elemental rage.
“Doc says most of those he could save should make a full recovery,” Jolene explained. We have one blind, two who will never walk again, and someone should put that poor Parker boy out of his misery if you ask me.”
“All buried. But the grave diggers were in a hurry to get out of the rain, yeah? We should go out there in the morning to make sure they’re deep enough so animals don’t dig them up.”
“Jolene, if there were any animals left around here to dig them up, we’d eat them. What’s the final score on the loot?”
“Pathetic. A little more ammo, more clothes, enough food to last maybe another week.”
“Remember we’re down by a third.”
“Oh yeah. Week and a half then. Bastards didn’t have any medicine besides OTC. Whole freezer full of toilet paper though, so there’s that.”
“So people died for a whole lot of nothing,” I sighed. “Freaking Elisabeth!”
“Morale’s okay,” Jolene reported, a suddenly chipper tone in her voice. “Everyone but Team Heather is cool with you wearing The Locket. She and Liz were best friends, so Her Majesty made sure Heather’s Team got more than their fair share of the loot. Heather’s not down with the new leadership yet, but I’ve been talking to her, and she’s coming around.”
There was a sudden, furious pounding on the front door.
“Did you hear that?” I asked, rising to my feet.
Carrying the lantern, I strode out the kitchen and through the living room to the front door, stepping over, around, and twice on the sleeping bodies that lay in my way.
“What was that Chief?” asked a little girl barely illuminated in the fading lantern, trembling in unmitigated terror.
“It’s just the wind sweetie,” her mother claimed, the woman only partially revealed in the pitiful glow of the dying light, her quaking voice unconvincing.
Frantic pounding bloomed again on the other side of the door, making it rattle madly in its frame. And then over all the pounding, even above the storm, there was the roar of an approaching freight train.
“It’s just the wind!” Jolene insisted, her voice behind me.
“You’re crazy!” I wailed, “It is Elisabeth Goodkind! I tell you that she now stands without the door!”
The front door burst open with a blast of rain. A dark, shambling figure stood in the open doorway, a shadow suddenly and briefly illuminated by lightning; a woman covered in mud, her eyes wild.
The shadow rushed in, keening “My locket!” in Elisabeth’s voice, clamping cold fingers like iron about my neck. I tried to fight her off amongst the shrieking mass of terrified humanity, but then the unseen freight train, despising any tracks, plowed into the house with an explosion.
My luminous watch tells me it has been three days. My nostrils are filled with the sickly-sweet stench of the rotting dead, my ears with the cries of those yet to die. But I cannot escape this endless darkness, for I am trapped in the rubble of this house.
About the author
Timothy was raised on a farm in rural Mississippi. His experiences have since taken him all around the world. He now teaches at local university, where he urges his Students to Run the Race, Keep the faith, and Endure to the End