Following on the fun we (supposedly) had for Halloween 2009 when I “live-tweeted” a piece of zombie flash fiction on Twitter, I was asked to repeat the exercise again for 2010. The result of that call was this story, “Counter-Protest.”
The basic idea came from trekkieturtle, who suggested a story about zombies having their way with the folks from a certain “church” of certifiable whack-jobs. They get their rocks off by staging protests at (among other things) the funerals for fallen service members, where they hold up signs that convey notions of God punishing said soldiers as vengeance for our society’s embracing of homosexuality. “Thank God for IEDs” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers” and other assorted vile bullshit are common slogans on display at such events.
(Yes, I know that the 1st Amendment protects this bunch and their antics, just as it protects my right to offer my humble opinion that every single one of those nutbags will eventually end up in the fiery pits of Hell, impaled through the ass on their own personalized hot pokers fashioned to resemble the flame-spewing cock of Mephistopheles himself. And, if there truly is a God, every single one of their deaths and subsequent banishments to Satan’s rec room will be aired on PBS.)
Anyway, while I loved the basic idea of sending zombies after this bunch, I’d already done zombies last Halloween, so I gave it some thought and figured out a way to use her suggestion while still doing something different. The result?
As with last Halloween, I presented this new story on Twitter as a (seemingly unending) series of tweets, interspersed with me handing out candy to neighborhood trick-or-treaters. Each tweet was appended with the hashtag “#wardfic” so folks could keep track of the feed I was conjuring. I even tweeted myself into a “Twitter time-out” at one point, necessitating me sitting in Twitter Jail for almost two hours before I could resume posting. For those who followed in real time, this raised a few questions as to whether I blew off the story to go and watch The Walking Dead. But, I finally managed to get back online and finish the “show.”
Now with Halloween 2010 safely behind us, here’s the entire story, without the Twitter hashtags and formatted for reading by regular people who can handle more than 140 characters at a time.
The day started off pretty much the way you’d expect when you’re on your way to bury your buddy. It was gray, and dark clouds threatened to open up any second. There’d been rain earlier in the week, so the cemetery would be a bog. Just what you want when you’re wearing your best suit and nicest shoes. Still, it could be worse. I could be in the coffin.
It wasn’t until the procession reached the cemetery that I finally saw what was going to make this funeral different.
“God hates your son!”
“He’s burning in Hell!”
We passed the protesters—all six of them—at the main gate, their shouts and chants audible even with my windows up. Assholes.
You know who they are, and you know that if there’s one thing the Eastburgh Community Church is good at, it’s drumming up publicity. The dickbag preacher in charge of the church, Barnabas Felcher, is a camera whore. His whole family gets off on stuff like this. They hate pretty much everybody, but they’ve got real hard-ons for gays and lesbians. According to them, everything bad that happens in the world is because we tolerate gays. Soldiers die because we all don’t stand up and denounce “those godless fags.” So, the Felchers and their followers picket military funerals, carrying signs and yelling all sorts of vile shit. “God Hates You” and “Pray for More Dead Babies” are popular slogans of theirs. When I saw one guy with a sign that read, “Thank God for IEDs,” I wanted to get out and beat his ass with a tire iron.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said my friend, Dave Callan, from where he sat in the passenger seat.
I shook my head. “Jesus, man. Are they serious? That’s how Steve died. What the fuck is wrong with these people?” If there is a God, I hope he cock-slaps this whole pack of inbred douche nozzles when they show up on his doorstep looking for a handout.
We got out of my car and I looked around. It was a military cemetery, the final resting place for soldiers dating back to the Civil War. I’d come here a few years ago when they buried Steve’s grandfather, himself a Korean War vet. There was an air of somberness about this place that seemed greater than the civilian cemeteries I’d visited. The air was damp and there was a chill; the kind of cold that cuts through your clothes no matter how many layers you’re wearing. After rain the previous evening, the ground was covered with a blanket of fog that obscured the shorter headstones.
“Damned creepy out here,” I said. “Even in broad daylight.”
Dave nodded. “Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing.”
We started toward Steve’s burial site. It hadn’t started raining yet, and I was hoping it might actually let loose. Maybe the Felchers would worry about melting and scurry back under their rocks or into whatever shithole they’d crawled out of. I made a point not to look in their direction, but it didn’t matter. Now that mourners were starting to gather near the gravesite, the Felchers were like a gang of sharks sniffing blood in the water. The cemetery was small enough that there’d be no getting away from the pricks. They stood outside the fence, yelling some of the same shit painted on their signs, and we could hear every hateful word.
“Wow,” I said to Dave, keeping my voice low. “I know this is their thing, but I didn’t think they’d be this bad.”
“Old Man Felcher’s hoping somebody will try to mix it up with them, so he can sue,” Dave replied. “Go after him, and you’ll be the star of his website or shitty newsletter or whatever.”
“As long as they don’t edit the part where I stick a pitchfork up his ass,” I said, “it’d be worth it.”
Dave shook his head. “Fuck ‘em. They wouldn’t make a pimple in the ass crack of somebody like Steve. Remember that.”
Doing my best to ignore the Felcher gaggle, I turned my attention to Steve’s casket. It’d been draped with an American flag, and various flower arrangements and wreaths were positioned behind it. A picture of Steve in his Marine dress uniform sat in a frame of white blossoms at the center of the display.
You know, those Marine uniforms are pretty damned snappy looking.
Damn, Steve. Why’d you have to go and get yourself killed? I mean, I get the whole thing with wanting to serve your country and all that. Hell, I don’t think a week went by back in college that you didn’t talk about your granddad, or your father’s time in Vietnam. I understand why you signed up after 9/11, and why you volunteered to go to Afghanistan, but five tours? Damn, dude. Nobody ever said it out loud, but we all knew you were pretty much rolling the dice at that point. Well, they can’t ever say you didn’t have balls; that’s for damned sure. Still, I think I speak for everybody when I wish you’d stayed home and opened that sports bar you’d always talked about.
Standing at the head of Steve’s casket was a Navy lieutenant with chaplain’s insignia on his dress uniform. I’d heard he was attached to Steve’s unit in Afghanistan, and had requested to make the trip back to the States for the funeral. Steve had been well-respected in his unit, more so for volunteering to go back time and again. His folks had been getting cards, letters, and flowers from his buddies and their families for two weeks.
Mourners were moving to the chairs positioned before Steve’s casket, with Steve’s mom and dad on the front row. The chaplain looked ready to start the service, but I think most of us flinched when some of Felcher’s idiots yelled again.
“Your son died for fags!”
“God sent the bomb that killed your son!”
From where I stood, I could see Steve’s mother starting to cry, and her husband, Jake, put his arm around her. We hadn’t even started, the situation was already turning to shit, and there was no way the Felchers were letting up now. I turned toward the fence and saw some of them waving their signs and pumping the air with their fists. For the second time this morning, I wondered where I might find something I could use to crush a skull or two.
I didn’t even realize I was walking in their direction until Dave shouted my name the third time. By then, I was halfway to the gate, feeling my fists clenching as I advanced on Barnabas Felcher. The son of a bitch was smiling. He knew what was coming, and three or four of his friends already had video cameras up and waiting. Footage of me beating the shit out of this asshole would be all over tonight’s news. I’d also be in jail, but I didn’t care. Fuck it, and fuck these parasites.
That’s when it happened.
An odd ringing echoed in my ears. I shuddered as a flash of cold washed over my body,
and a knot formed in my gut. My mouth suddenly was dry, and it hurt when I tried to swallow. I knew something screwy was happening when I looked at Felcher, and his shit-eating grin had disappeared.
Something moved in my peripheral vision, and I looked down to see the ground fog shifting around us. The mist seemed to retreat, skirting the damp grass only to gather in billowing masses over various grave markers.
“What the hell is this?” I said, my voice a raspy whisper. Whatever was happening, it had the Felcher clan’s attention, because they’d shut up for the first time since our arrival.
I watched as the fog hovering over one nearby gravesite started to roil and twist, undulating as its shape changed. It stretched, elongated, coalesced into solidity, taking on color and substance, and I felt my jaw slacken as I realized it was taking on the form of a man.
“Jesus….Fucking….” The rest of whatever I was going to say died in my throat as the ghostly figure stepped from the fog. He wore a military uniform I didn’t recognize. As he moved, it became apparent that he still possessed at least some of the fluctuating, amorphous qualities of the mist which had spawned him. He walked away from the gravestone, and I was able to see through him and read the dates etched into the marker’s face.
Private Matthew Russell. Born 7 August 1892. Died 23 July 1918. He would’ve been about Steve’s age when he died.
Screams and shouts of alarm snapped me back to the here and now, and I turned to see everybody moving away from Steve’s gravesite. They were scattering, but a few people held their ground, pointing in different directions. When I saw what they were looking at, I almost gave into the overwhelming urge to turn and run like hell.
Private Russell, if indeed that’s who he was, or had been, or whatever, now had friends. Lots of them. More ghostly figures were emerging from the fog hovering over different gravestones around the cemetery. All of them wore uniforms, from formal or ceremonial to battle dress, representing every conflict in which the U.S. had taken part.
All around me, people were scattering, but something made me stand my ground as I watched Russell cross the cemetery. His features were fixed, offering no hint of emotion, and his eyes seemed devoid of life. Despite this, the wraithlike figure appeared to move with a singular purpose as he walked directly toward Barnabas Felcher.
The church leader, for his part, looked to be going out of his fucking mind. With eyes that looked ready to pop free of his skull, the old man was trembling in palpable fear. He dropped the sign he’d been holding and turned to run before his expression changed to a mix of terror and confusion. Something was holding him in place, along with all of his companions. Their faces were masks of horror as they stood immobile and watched the ghostly soldier approach.
“What are you?” asked Old Man Felcher, his voice cracking under the strain as he beheld the figure before him. “What sort of hellish minion as the Devil set against us?” I half-expected the asshole to hold up a crucifix or something.
I sensed movement and turned to see the other soldiers, their bodies little more than the mist from which they’d come. They had maneuvered into a circular formation, surrounding Felcher and his followers. Their expressions were mirrors of one another, offering no hint of life or intelligence. Despite this, I couldn’t shake the sensation of something intelligent at work here. Whose intelligence, I didn’t even want to think about.
To my surprise, Felcher looked to have grown some balls. He drew himself up, lifting his chin and looking Russell in the eye. Still, when he spoke his voice betrayed his dread. “What do you want?” he asked.
Russell seemed to study Felcher for several seconds before stepping forward, and the old man flinched at the wraith’s approach. Reaching with arms that seemed more like tendrils of smoke than actual limbs, Russell cradled Felcher’s face in his hands. The preacher’s reaction was immediate, his eyes widening and his mouth opening in renewed terror.
“Stop!” he cried. “No!” A few of his followers shouted for the wraith to release Felcher, but most of them either whimpering or outright crying. I noted that one man, a big muscled dude who looked like he might’ve been ex-military, had pissed himself.
Felcher was trembling again and he reached for Russell’s arms, but his hands passed through the wraith without resistance. He gurgled something I didn’t understand, but anything else he might’ve said was lost as the apparition leaned closer. The soldier’s mouth opened and wisps of gray-white vapor emerged, drifting to Felcher and pushing past the old man’s lips.
For the first time, Russell’s expression changed. His brow furrowed, his eyes narrowed, and an unmistakable intensity emerged. Felcher whimpered when the wraith opened his mouth again, though this time it was to speak.
I shuddered in response to the single word, a tingle skipping across my skin and down my spine. Felcher’s frail body spasmed, his lips quivering as he tried to look away from Russell. The wraith held him in place, the odd vapor continuing to cross between them.
Though they had not moved since taking up their perimeter positions around the Felcher clan, the other soldiers echoed Russell. Their voices were as one, their simple, blunt demand echoing across the fog-laden cemetery.
Felcher, his body a shivering mass, surrendered to Russell’s unworldly assault, and he fell to his knees before the apparition. Now free of the wraith’s touch, the old man brought his hands to his face, weeping openly. His features had gone slack, his eyes blank and unseeing. Before there had been only hatred, but now I saw only feral horror. He was broken, as though lost amid the chaos raging in his own mind.
Sucks to be you, bro.
Rendered mute by what they had just witnessed, the rest of the protesters could only look on as Russell turned and walked away. The other soldiers took his lead, dissolving their formation around the Felcher clan and returning to the cemetery. I watched as they made their way to the graves from which they’d risen and the embrace of the fog which had given them form.
All except for Russell.
I followed him across the grass, keeping my distance as the young soldier walked to Steve’s casket. Most of the funeral attendees had fled, though Steve’s parents stayed as if to guard their son. My eyes met theirs and we shared a look of shock and confusion, but the wraith seemed to take no notice. He moved to the casket, remaining there for a moment before resting one vaporous hand atop the flag draped over Steve’s coffin. Then I watched as he rendered with unchecked solemnity a crisp, military salute. When he spoke this time, it was with an air of utter sadness.
He said nothing else, but merely held his salute for several more moments before turning and moving away from the casket. A glance across the cemetery told me that the other apparitions had vanished, presumably back to their resting places. As for Russell, the ground fog seemed to converge on him as he crossed the grass toward his own grave. His body was dissipating into the mist with every step, vanishing altogether by the time the cloud reached his headstone. The fog continued to shift, settling like a blanket over the graves and leaving no sign that anything odd had happened here.
What had the wraith meant? Enough what? Hatred? War? I decided that Matthew Russell, who’d died so long ago at far too young an age, probably figured we’d done a pretty shit job in his absence. That feeling was only strengthened as I turned and looked upon Barnabas Felcher, still kneeling in a limp heap on the damp grass. He was crying and seemed to be mumbling to himself, but I couldn’t make out any of the words. His followers had gathered around him, offering support, but he was lost in whatever purgatory Russell had inflicted upon him.
Serves you right, fucker.
Hearing steps behind me, I turned to see Dave Callan walking toward me, his expression one of concern. “You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied, looking to Steve’s parents, who somehow had found the means to tune out the world around them. They stood at Steve’s casket, caressing the draped flag and whispering to each other, tears streaming down their faces. Whatever else might have happened here today, they would not be denied their chance to bid farewell to their beloved son.
Rest in peace, buddy. We’ll try to do right by you.
Copyright © 2010 by Dayton Ward. All Rights Reserved. This means you, too, Cooks Source.
Hopefully, we’ll do it all again next year!