Thursday, June 13, 2013

Preview. Journal of the Undead: Littleville Uprising

Journal of the Undead: Littleville Uprising

*Author’s note: The town of Littleville and the local businesses are fictitious.  While there are several suburbs in the Philadelphia area that hold a special place in my heart, I needed to create an amalgam of them to encompass the needs of the story.  Besides, I didn’t have the heart to destroy my hometown in a zombie uprising. *

July 31st       

            “Hey, Rookie.”  Officer Scott Raines teased.  Just an FYI… if you push down on that long, thin pedal, it will make the car move faster.” 
Visibility was practically nonexistent through the dense fog and Officer Travis Kepler had slowed the police cruiser to a crawl.  Still in his first week with the Collegeville Police Force, Kepler wasn’t taking any chances.  While his veteran partner fiddled with the radio, searching for the baseball game, he gingerly coaxed the vehicle around the bend. 
            “It figures.  I can’t get this stupid thing tuned in and I’ll just bet Carla forgets to DVR the game for me.”  Raines grumbled.
He was beginning to regret his suggestion to take the scenic route through their jurisdiction.  Mentally kicking himself, he wished he had waited for a clear night, preferably when the Phillies weren’t playing.  
“Why don’t we pop in at the diner?  I desperately need a refill.”  Kepler suggested, holding up his empty travel mug.  “Who knows, we might even catch the end of the game.” 
            “Sounds like a plan to me,” Raines agreed, eagerly.  “I’ll show you a shortcut.  And for crying out loud, Rookie, my grandmother walks faster than you drive.  Step on it, would ya?”
Kepler knew he’d have to endure more than a few “rookie” cracks over the next couple of months.  Smirking, he slammed his foot down on the gas pedal.  His partner chuckled as the car lurched forward.  The veteran was threatening Kepler with a speeding ticket when the words froze on his lips.
            “That doesn’t look good,” Raines observed, pointing at the side of the road. 
Their cruiser screeched to a halt next to an abandoned minivan with a stick-figure family on the rear window.  Thick smoke spewed from the van’s crumpled grille.  Only one headlamp was lit, the other shattered upon impact with the telephone pole.  A large, bloody handprint was smeared across the window.  The two officers stepped out of their vehicle.  Proving he was still a fledgling, Kepler had his weapon drawn and ready.  Raines directed the beam of his flashlight into the driver’s side of the minivan.
            “There’s no one in there,” he said, angling his light through the other windows.  “But, oh man, there’s blood everywhere.  They must’ve got out and walked for help.”
Raines radioed for a tow truck while Kepler set off flares.  Then they hopped back into the cruiser, to search for the driver.
Squinting against the refracted glare from the headlights, Raines spotted a clumsy shadow staggering along the side of the road.  John Campbell propped his wife’s mangled body up against the guardrail then gingerly stroked his son’s bloody cheek.
            “Hang in there, Buddy, we’ll be safe soon,” he sobbed while waving his free arm to signal for help. 
Flopping down on the gravel, next to his dead wife, John rocked the lifeless body of his five-year-old son and prayed to a God he’d sworn he didn’t believe in.  He ignored the blood weeping from his own wounds.  It was only a matter of time before he was dead, just like the others.  John hoped he could hold out long enough to tell someone what happened. 
“I’ve got to warn them”, John Campbell muttered, “I just have to stay alive long enough to warn them.”
 His thoughts drifted from past to present.  He remembered childhood Christmases, kick ball on the playground after school, and summers at the Jersey shore.  His first kiss, his wedding day, and his son’s birth, all danced across his mind’s eye.  A garbled sound interrupted his memories, for just a moment, before he envisioned their frantic escape.  The GPS showed he was a mere twenty minutes from Littleville Memorial Hospital.  Temporarily blinded by the fog, he had slammed into the telephone pole.       
“I’m so sorry, baby.”  John whispered, unable to push the words from his lips.  “I tried to get you there.”
“Are you okay?  Can you tell us what happened?”  Officer Kepler shouted a second time.  Instinctively, his hand hovered over the holster of his side arm, as if expecting the unresponsive man to attack.
            “The ambulance should be here any second,” Raines announced as he joined his partner.  “Oh my God!  What the hell happened to them?  Those wounds aren’t from any car wreck.”
            “I have no idea,” Kepler muttered,“ but I think they’re dead.”


It was just past 10:30 when Major Frank Stone slipped quietly into bed, next to his wife, Kate.  He marveled how, even after twenty years of marriage, she looked just as beautiful as the day they met.  Though the room was dark, Frank could see the outline of Kate’s sleeping body.  Her long hair fanned out over the pillows.  He loved the soft sound of her breathing.  Not exactly a snore, it reminded him of a kitten’s purr.  Watching her sleep, Frank debated whether or not to wake her.  No, he decided, I’ll wait until morning.  Almost on cue, Kate rolled over and rested her head on Frank’s chest.
“You’re home late.”  Kate murmured, sleepily.  “Is everything okay?” 
Frank exhaled deeply, his trademark that he had bad news.  Through their years of marriage, Kate came to learn that Frank’s body language spoke far more than he did. 
            “We’re moving again, aren’t we,” Kate asked, trying to keep the disappointment from her voice.  She knew when they wed; a military life was never stationary.  The disappointment wasn’t for herself; it was for their children.  Evan was going to be a junior in high school.  Kate had hoped her son would be able to graduate before another relocation.  Their youngest, Lucy, was painfully shy.  She had only just started to make friends but now she would have to start all over.  Kate’s heart broke for her children but, as always; she put on a brave smile.  She clicked on the bedside lamp and asked where they were going.
            “Littleville, Pennsylvania” Frank answered.  “It’s a small suburb, about an hour outside of Philadelphia.  They have an excellent school system, and I’ve already bought a house.  In fact, your brother has been adding some, let’s say…personal touches to the home.  This way, if I have to relocate again, you and the kids can stay.  At least until Evan graduates.  I made a promise and I mean to keep it, Kate.  Evan will have a chance to graduate with friends.  I know that’s important to you.”
Kate smiled first then her brow furrowed.  
“Jimmy knows?”  Kate questioned, accusingly.  “Now you listen to me, Frank Stone,” Kate scolded, wagging her finger at him.  “I’ve come to accept that there are countless individuals who know where I’m going before I do, but telling my brother before me.” 
Kate’s sentence trailed off as she tried to feign annoyance.  Frank chuckled at her vain attempt and pulled her close.  Kissing her forehead, Frank apologized for not telling her sooner. 
“It’s our first real home off base, Kate.  I just wanted it to be perfect before you saw it.  Your brother, Jimmy, is the best contractor I know,” Frank added, “and I’m not just saying that because of the family discount, either.”
“Be serious, Frank!”  Kate scolded.  “When do we leave?”
“Not until September,” Frank replied.
The next morning, Frank and Kate told the kids about the move.  As Kate had anticipated, Evan accepted the news without a trace of concern.  He merely shrugged and poured himself another bowl of cereal.  Lucy tried to be brave, like her big brother, but she dissolved into tears, spilling milk all over the table.

That morning in Littleville, a U-Haul parked beside the “SOLD” realtor sign.  Dr. Alan Wexley slid out of the driver’s seat and stretched.  His wife, Jillian, had fallen asleep on the trip and was taking her time getting out of the truck.  Alan noticed his son, Matt, had already arrived in the family’s SUV.  He and his twin sister, Emma, were unloading the last boxes from the back.  Wondering how long the twins had been there, Alan made a mental note to speak with Matt about the importance of obeying speed limits.  While Jillian went inside to “freshen up”, Alan joined his children to unpack.  As their father approached, the twins ended their conversation mid-sentence.  Dr. Wexley assumed they had been discussing their stepmother.  Moving was always stressful but, lately, the tension between his children and Jillian had been palpable.  Driving separately had offered a brief and peaceful reprieve, savored by all.  Grabbing a stack of boxes, Alan was amazed at the amount of stuff they had accumulated over the years.  Wistfully, he remembered the joy of buying his very first home.  He had borrowed a buddy’s pickup and crammed the rest of the boxes into his beat-up sedan.  His first wife was still pregnant with the twins and Alan had just completed his doctorate a few months earlier.  Back then; he had a new job and a family on the way, with their whole lives ahead of them.  Alan was jolted from reverie when Matt dashed out from the U-haul, shouting profanities as he ran.           
“Football tryouts,” Emma explained to her bewildered dad.  “He’s running late.”
Shaking his head, Dr. Wexley wrestled with the furniture and wondered aloud why he hadn’t hired professional movers.  Together, he and Emma had managed to empty most of the U-haul, leaving only the heaviest furniture and appliances for when Matt returned.  Faking a migraine, Jillian had excused herself from all manual labor.  Instead, she lounged in the air conditioning while the truck was unloaded and boxes unpacked.  Her sole contribution was to call a local pizza shop to order delivery.  Safely out of earshot, Emma and Matt fumed about Jillian’s laziness. 
            “I can’t believe she didn’t help at all,” he grumbled.  “I never should have bailed on you to go to football practice. 
            “Don’t be ridiculous, you had to go” Emma chided.  “I can’t believe you’re actually surprised.  Of course, she sat on her lazy butt all day.  You know has to stay indoors.  She’s probably afraid someone will drop a house on her!” 
Simultaneously, the twins hummed the Wicked Witch of the West theme from The Wizard of Oz and laughed. 

Sleep eluded Travis Kepler.  Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the mangled Campbell family, propped against the guardrail like a budding serial killer’s doll collection.  Despite the chilly air pumping full force from his air conditioner, beads of sweat speckled his brow and trickled down his back. 
            “Get a grip!”  He angrily growled to himself. 
Travis refused to admit to anyone that he had been struggling to sleep for the past few weeks.  Ever since they had encountered the gruesome Campbell family, he had been plagued with insomnia.  On the odd chance he managed to fall asleep, nightmares shocked him awake.  Even while he was conscious, it seemed that he couldn’t get them out of his mind.  It was both infuriating and embarrassing.  Seeing dead people was part of the job.  Rookie or not, that kind of behavior made him look weak and cops weren’t supposed to be weak.  Sitting on the edge of his bed, he rubbed his bloodshot eyes and sighed.  It was there, in the dark, that his inner demons unleashed their torments.  The cruel and relentless taunts of his oppressors echoed on a never-ending track in his head.  A “late bloomer” was what his sympathetic mother called it.  His father had not been so gentle and neither were the bigger kids at school.  “Sissy”, “wimp”, “baby”, “fag”, so many words left deeper wounds than the fists and feet that pounded his flesh daily.  He stalked to the bathroom and splashed water on his face.  Glaring at his reflection in the mirror, he paused then nodded in acceptance.  He had left that scrawny, timid boy in the past.  The man in the mirror was strong and muscular.  He refused to let a couple of dead bodies ruin his reputation on the force.  Trying to sleep proved futile, so the rookie pulled a few bottles of beer from the fridge.  He popped the cap and flopped onto his secondhand sofa.  Hoping for a distraction, he mindlessly flipped through the channels on his enormous, flat-screen TV.  Instead, every channel seemed to be part of a secret conspiracy, hell-bent on torturing insomniacs.  As if the infomercials weren’t bad enough, the late night talk shows were all reruns. 
            “I have over two hundred channels and there’s still nothing on,” he grumbled. 
With his mind numbed by tedious programming and fermented grains, Travis Kepler grew weary of flipping channels.  Yet, his thumb continued pressing buttons until a savage shark attack on a nature program caught his attention.  He watched, captivated, until nothing was left of the unlucky seal but bloody shreds of flesh, floating in the water.  Unwillingly, his mind wandered back to the bloody Campbell family.  For the first time in his life, Kepler wondered if sharks had secretly evolved, sprouting legs and lungs while retaining their vicious jaws.  So far, it was his best theory, despite being ridiculously implausible.  Frustrated, he clicked off the TV, opened another beer, and grabbed his laptop.  After scrolling through pages upon pages of animal attack victims, Officer Kepler was convinced that the Campbell family’s attacker was not of the typical four-legged variety.  So, unless there was an adult African Lion running loose somewhere in Montgomery County, there had to be another answer. 
BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, the alarm shrilled.  He stretched out to smack the snooze button but his clock wasn’t in arm’s reach.  Still sprawled on the couch, with his laptop resting across his legs, Travis Kepler hadn’t even opened his eyes when the blinding pain hit.  He tried to stretch the painful kink out of his neck.  Sighing, he vigorously massaged the knots from his sore muscles before shuffling to his bedroom to turn off the alarm.  After a hot shower and a mug of coffee, he felt just good enough to say he felt like crap.  When he arrived at the station, his partner, Officer Scott Raines, commented on the rookie’s appearance.
            “Geez, you look like death warmed over, kid.”  Raines teased.  “What were you doing last night?”
            “Your mom,” Kepler blurted without thinking, and instantly regretted it.
While that kind of response might have been funny to his buddies back home, it was less than prudent to spout off to his new partner and a veteran of the force.  He stammered, wanting to apologize but not managing to find the words.  For a moment there was silence.  The other officers stopped dead, waiting for the drama to unfold.  Raines, shocked at first, burst out laughing.  He playfully punched his new partner’s shoulder and their friendship was cemented.  Disappointed there would be no action, the others went back to work. 
            “My mother is old, fat, and in Connecticut visiting my aunt.  So, what were you really doing last night?”  Raines asked.
            “Sadly, I was doing some research-at home and all alone.  I just can’t figure out what could have happened to that Campbell family.  It looked like something chewed them up and spit ‘em back out again.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”
            “That’s what the autopsy is for,” laughed Raines.  “This isn’t like those cop shows on television, Rookie.”
Still laughing, Officer Raines shook his head in disbelief and walked away.  Rookies were so naive.  

Early September

Just above the crash of slamming locker doors, and the shuffle of students rushing to class, Emma Wexley could hear the incessant, and to her, mindless chatter of her classmates.  Or more specifically, the “uniforms”, Emma’s nickname for the cookie cutter, mindless sheep that all seemed to be wearing exactly the same thing.  When they weren’t in uniform, they looked like they had just stepped out of a fashion shoot. 
“Cheerleaders, the jocks, they’re all the same”, she decided.  “Their parents just gave them different names”. 
Oddly enough, they weren’t always given different names.  Lincoln High had an over-abundance of girls named Jessica or Brittany and boys named Tyler.  Matt probably knows them all, Emma thought sarcastically.  It didn’t matter how many times their dad had to relocate for work, Matt always found it easy to fit in and make new friends.  Their family had moved a few weeks before school started just so that Matt could try out for the football team.  Now, only halfway through the second week of school, Emma had already disassociated herself from most of the other students.  As she made her way to homeroom, the words to a long forgotten song played in her head.  “And each town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories, and every stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be, Homeward Bound”.  Since the death of her mother, home was a distant memory.  Jillian always made sure that each new house was bigger, and more expensive than the last, but that didn’t make it home.  Not that Emma would consider any place with her stepmother, Jillian, home.  Hell maybe, but never home.  Matt constantly reassured her that, if anything, it was only Purgatory, but Emma had her doubts.  Her father worked long hours and rarely noticed tensions between his wife and his children.  He spent every day noticing the most obscure details in his research, yet with his own family he seemed blissfully unaware.  There were times that his children wondered if the oblivion was deliberate, but they never voiced their suspicion. 

Emma and Matt met in the hallway between classes.  He was surrounded by a few of his teammates and, of course, a trail of cheerleaders.  With an engaging personality and looks to match, most of the girls in the junior class were dreaming of ways to make Matt notice them.  When Matt saw Emma coming, he pulled away from the group to talk to her.  He worried that she wasn’t fitting in.  She looked at the gathering with contempt as one of the many girls named Jessica showed off her new earrings to an overly impressed crowd. 
“Ooh look, something shiny” Emma scoffed. 
Matt smiled patiently but his eyes showed clear frustration.  Controlling the irritation in his voice, he calmly asked her to be nice. 
“After all Em, just because they’re cheerleaders doesn’t automatically make them air heads.” 
Emma decided that she would put his theory to the test later.  She refused to be late to class. 
Most of the other students had taken their seats but a cluster of “uniforms” swarmed around Emma’s desk.  Her second-period history class was about to become an interrogation.  They wanted information about Matt and his twin sister was the best source.  All at once, a barrage of questions had been unleashed on her.  Everything from favorite bands to his taste in girls, they wanted the inside scoop and they wanted it now.  When Mr. Stringer entered the room and attempted to bring his class to order, Emma hoped the girls would leave her alone.  Crestfallen, she opened the note that had been tossed onto her desk.  The page had only one word on it, “Well???”  Mr. Stringer droned on: significant dates, heroic men, fierce battles, but his words fell on deaf ears.  With retirement looming, Mr. Stringer rarely bothered to notice if his students were paying attention.  He had long ago abandoned any attempts at discipline in his classroom and most kids took full advantage of the freedom.  The uniforms weren’t letting a prime opportunity slip through their fingers.  Each of the girls breathlessly waited for Emma’s reply.  In an effort to delay the inevitable, she scrawled “later” on the page.  Grimacing, she passed the note back.  Emma hated being the center of attention, especially when snobby girls were prying about her family.  The combination of embarrassment and annoyance made her cheeks flush.  She was too preoccupied with the girls to notice she was being watched.  A pair of warm brown eyes, flecked with gold, discreetly glanced in her direction.  Evan Stone did a convincing job of pretending to take notes.  In his second day at Lincoln High, he wasn’t aware that his history teacher didn’t expect anyone to listen, let alone take notes.  Evan had noticed Emma in some of his other classes and knew she was Matt’s sister.  He remembered Matt’s warning that his sister had “a sharp mind but an even sharper tongue”.  Since there didn’t seem to be any risk of getting caught, he took a few minutes for an appraisal.  The long dark ringlets of Emma’s hair fell in waves, cascading to the middle of her back.  She had deep, penetrating eyes that were so dark they appeared black.  Her porcelain skin was even prettier, now that she was blushing, and to Evan’s approval, she didn’t seem to wear makeup.  Unlike the wannabe fashion models, Emma wore a plain T- shirt and comfortable jeans.  Her voice had a lyrical quality that made Evan’s heart leap every time she answered a question in class.  Because Emma always seemed to have the right answer, teachers frequently called on her. 
Emma’s attention remained focused on the clock, which seemed to be frozen.  When the bell finally rang, the “uniforms” descended.  Anxious to have their questions answered, they were all talking over each other.  The prettiest of them stepped forward and, in a sickly sweet voice, reprimanded the others for ganging up on Emma.  She was clearly the queen bee.  The same sugary voice continued, insincerely complimenting Emma.  She wanted to scream, “Please, spare me the fake flattery; it insults my intelligence” but she refrained.  Instead, she smiled sweetly, just as fake as the compliments. 
“And what was your name again?”  Emma asked.
To the “uniforms”, not being known or revered was practically torture and she enjoyed making them miserable.  With a hint of annoyance, Whitney reminded Emma of everyone’s names. 
“Yeah, I’ll try to remember that,” Emma blandly replied. 
Whitney rambled on, listing every question she wanted answered and suggestions for ways Emma could “put in a good word” for her.  Emma’s eyes lit up and she interrupted Whitney.
 “Wait, I know,” she gasped.  “I’ll tell Matt that, Whitney, the one with the insipid eyes, was asking about him.  How about that?”
 The other girls looked deflated and jealously wished they had been the one to talk to Emma.
“Do you really think so?”  Whitney asked, fluttering her eyelashes.  “Will Matt?”
“Without a doubt,” was Emma’s reply. 
A disgusted snort came from the doorway as Evan left the room.  Giggling, Whitney and her followers floated to the hallway and Emma rolled her eyes.
“Yeah right, Matt, definitely not airheads, She scoffed. 
Her smile turned to a smirk when the others reiterated how insipid Whitney’s eyes were, gushing that Whitney was the luckiest girl in school.  By lunch, most of the junior class was buzzing about Whitney’s “insipid eyes”.  Emma was amazed that no one knew the definition of the word.  She wondered how they could think it was a compliment and considered it an indictment on the public education system.  Engrossed in her disgust of lesser minds, she didn’t notice her brother storming across the cafeteria.  Matt grabbed Emma’s arm and pulled her out of line. 
“Insipid, Emma?  Insipid.  What am I supposed to say now?  I mean, geez, they think it’s a compliment.”  Matt hissed.  Angry this time, he growled, “you said you would try this time.  You promised!” 
Matt’s subtly laid groundwork with Whitney was at risk by Emma’s snide remark.  Regaining his composure, Matt tried again. 
“ Look, I know it’s hard for you, but sometimes you make it harder.  Dad said this is our last move, until after we graduate.  Don’t roll your eyes at me!  By the time you realize we aren’t going anywhere, it will be too late.  You’ll have alienated the entire school.” 
Emma gave him an apologetic smile and reminded him that she would always have her favorite brother.
            “I’m your only brother,” her twin grumbled.
Matt waited for his friends while Emma got back in line.  She took her tray to an empty table, in the corner of the cafeteria, and started eating.  As was her habit, she pulled out a book to read while she ate.  Matt’s reproach bothered her more than she cared to admit.  Her heart wasn’t captivated by the plights of Scout and Atticus, at least not today.  With a sigh, Emma returned her well-worn copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, to her bag.  She turned to look out the window and that’s when she noticed him.  Though she didn’t know his name, Evan Stone was seated across the room, reading.  Not a textbook in a last ditch effort to cram; it didn’t even look like part of the “required reading” list for English class.  Emma’s heart fluttered for a moment as she wondered about his book.  Her thoughts were interrupted as Matt and his friends made their way to her table.  Soon she was surrounded by “uniforms”.  Evan looked up, noticed the crowd around Emma, and looked away with disgust.  He assumed then that she was one of “them”, after all, and her insipid crack was an attempt to overthrow Whitney.  Or worse, she didn’t know its definition.  Either way, Evan’s interest waned.  That type of girl could hold no charms for him.  Glumly, Evan went back to his book.  Emma; however, found herself taking a closer look.  The girl sitting next to Emma leaned over and whispered.
“His name is Evan Stone and he’s yummy, huh?” Christy giggled.
Startled, Emma realized that while she was watching Evan, the girls were watching her.  She stared incredulously at Christy.  “Yummy” was not a term she, herself, would ever use to describe anything.  She had been so shocked to find someone else reading, of his own free will, that she hadn’t considered his physique.  Prompted by Christy’s description, Emma took a closer look.  His short tousled hair was a soft brown that reflected warm honey highlights in the sun.  Evan’s shirt clung to his muscular arms and shoulders.  His build was leaner than the bulky football players that flanked Emma’s table, which she found more attractive.  Ashamed that she had ogled him, she looked away, embarrassed, and went to dispose of her half eaten lunch.  Matt had never seen his sister act so girly.  He choked back a snicker as he watched her check out Evan.  Pondering the match, Matt saw potential.  Like Emma, Evan was enrolled in Honors Courses and they both had broad vocabularies.  Smiling, he hatched a plan.  Football practice had been cancelled so he decided to invite Evan to hang out after school.  He hoped Emma would lighten up if she had a friend, or better still, a boyfriend.  Since he and Evan had a class together after lunch, the timing was perfect.

Getting to class lacked a sense of urgency as the day wore on.  With only two classes left, students were loitering in the hallway, talking.  As usual, Emma found Matt surrounded by his friends.  This time, Evan was with them.  Her first instinct was to keep going but she chided herself for thinking like a shy, little girl.  She could talk to her brother any time she wanted.  The word insipid seemed to echo through the hallways, grating on Matt’s nerves.  He was sick of hearing everyone talk about Whitney’s eyes and he still hadn’t found a way to correct them.  The new buzz term had gone viral and he lacked the vocabulary to replace it.  Whitney’s gloating only increased the likelihood of her fury when she learned the truth.  Obligated by Emma’s arrival, Matt introduced his sister to Evan.  Emma was confused by the harshness in Matt’s tone and the knowing look on Evan’s face. 
“All hail our insipid leader”.  Evan said as he stepped forward in a grandiose bow.  His words were dripping with sarcasm.
 Emma quietly corrected him. “I think you mean intrepid, not insipid”.
Evan was quick to disagree.  “Oh no, I’m quite sure I meant insipid”.  Looking her up and down, he continued. 
“You see, I wouldn’t classify you as dauntless, which is what intrepid means.  Bland or uninspired on the other hand seems like a far more accurate description”.  Emma’s look of shock only encouraged Evan to continue. 
“I mean, really, how difficult is it to dethrone queen sycophant?” he questioned motioning toward Whitney. 
Aghast, Emma sputtered, “I beg your pardon?” 
“Honey, you can beg all you want,” Evan condescendingly smirked. 
Emma was outraged and, for the first time, her vast vocabulary simply eluded her.  She glared at Evan, with a look that could peel paint, but no words would come.  Flushed with anger, she managed to hiss “Asshole” before storming away. 
“Aw, come on.”  Evan called after her.  “You can do better than that.”
Matt waited until Emma had disappeared before allowing his laughter to escape. 
“I’ve never seen anyone shut her up,” Matt gasped.  “I know I’ve never pulled it off before.” 
“I’m sorry about that,” Evan answered.  “But I swear, if I hear one more idiotic girl babbling about applying makeup to create Whitney’s insipid eyes I’m going to lose my mind!” 
Matt laughed so hard he could scarcely breathe.  Evan fully expected Matt to rescind the offer to hang out after school.  He was surprised when Matt didn’t.
“Meet me in the parking lot after last period,” he said, still laughing.
Evan dashed off to his next class, relieved that his rash behavior hadn’t sabotaged his chance to make a new friend.

The parking lot was already emptying as Matt and Evan strolled to his car.  Still brooding over the scene with Evan, Emma was slumped in the passenger seat, angrily waiting for her brother.  With the music cranked on her iPod, she hummed along absent-mindedly to the music, completely unaware that they were about to have company.  With a fleeting twinge of guilt, Matt opened the driver’s side door and asked Emma to hop in the back.  The color drained from her face when she saw Evan waiting on the passenger side.  Emma’s voice was barely louder than a whisper.
“You have got to be kidding me”.  She protested. 
“It’s rude to make a guest ride in the back and I’ll end up grounded too if I let you drive,” Matt insisted. 
Furious, Emma hurled her bag into the back seat.  Glaring hatefully at both of them, she scrambled into the back.  The angry words Emma hissed were unintelligible but neither dared asking her to repeat them. 
An awkward silence hung in the air the entire ride.  Matt barely had the car in park before Emma jumped out and dashed through the front door.  Matt wondered aloud if Evan was any good at Trigonometry.  He doubted Emma would be helping him anytime soon.  As the boys made their way upstairs to Matt’s room, they could hear the hum of the vacuum cleaner. 
“Is she O.C.D. or something?”  Evan asked, laughingly.
Matt explained that Emma was grounded and their stepmom, Jillian, left a daily list of chores for her to complete.  It was the usual stuff: dust, vacuum, wash dishes, cook dinner.  With Emma doing all the housework, Jillian had more time for shopping and manicures. 
“I’d invite you to stay for dinner but Emma’s cooking,” Matt said.  “She’d probably poison us both.  I’m already at risk, no point putting you in danger”. 
After a couple of hours, Jillian crashed through the front door, arms loaded with bags from the trendiest stores the local mall had to offer.  She called up to Matt, telling him to bring in the rest.  Both boys descended the stairs and Matt introduced Evan to his stepmom. 
Jillian envisioned herself as being the very picture of elegance.  She dedicated many hours to hair, nails, and makeup, not to mention expensive jewelry.  By selecting the proper designs, her clothing perfectly camouflaged the slight imperfections age had imposed on her body.  Jillian’s overly styled hair was frozen perfectly in place but, even through the thick hairspray, it was obvious that no one could attain that shade of red naturally.  Jillian was impressed with Evan’s impeccable manners and clean-cut good looks.  She hoped that he would be a frequent visitor and that, perhaps, the twins would absorb his polite manners.  The twin terrors, as she secretly called her stepchildren, needed a good influence.  Jillian had never heard either of the twins call anyone ma’am, as Evan had.  She had no doubt that Emma and Matt had a long list of things they called her, but ma’am certainly wasn’t one of them. 
            “Will you be joining us for dinner, Evan?”  Jillian asked. 
Emma felt bile rising in her throat, as she rushed to the doorway to hear Evan’s reply.  The stray tendrils of hair, which had slipped out from her clip, fluttered on each exhale.  Her skin was flushed, both from the exertion of her chores and fury that she might have to cook for her newest enemy.  Her beauty momentarily stunned Evan but he recovered quickly and politely declined.  
“Pity you can’t stay.”  Emma sneered then, spinning on her heels, she returned to her work.  Jillian was horrified at Emma’s outburst but Evan managed to distract her.  With a few offhanded compliments and a charming smile, Jillian quickly forgot Emma’s flare-up.  Matt was grateful for the diversion.  He knew how much Jillian despised housework and she was all too anxious to keep Emma in the role of Cinderella.  If Evan hadn’t stepped in, Emma would have had two weeks added to her sentence, maybe more.  Emma’s inability to hold her tongue had already turned a two-week punishment into three months.  
Shortly after six o’clock, Alan Wexley trudged through the door.  Emma was just setting the last dish on the table when she heard her father enter.  Family dinners had once been a source of joy for both Matt and Emma, until Jillian entered the picture.  After their dad remarried, the twins found it unbearable.  Dr. Wexley often noticed the sadness in his children’s eyes and it broke his heart that he had no idea how to comfort them.  He had been naïve enough to think that Jillian would help fill the void his children felt, at the passing of their mother, and assuage their grief.  Between bites, they exchanged pleasantries.  There was an unspoken agreement between the twins and Jillian; they all played nice during dinner.  Because of the demands of Alan’s job, the brief time they shared at the dinner table was often all he had to give.  None of them wanted to spoil it by bickering.  Jillian prattled on enthusiastically about her day while the twins tried not to roll their eyes.
“ I have some news too,” Dr. Wexley said, between bites.  “Friday night, we’re having dinner with Major Stone and his family.” 
Emma felt a wave of nausea crash over her.  Clearly, their new address was in the fifth ring of Hell.  Her father continued.
“I think the Major’s son might be in your grade.  He has a daughter too, although, I’m not sure about her age.”  
In the midst of her panic, Emma was struck by inspiration. 
            “It’s a shame I’ll have to miss it,” she lied.  “But I’m still grounded.” 
            “Don’t be silly, sweetheart,” Alan replied.  “You’ll be excused from your punishment to join the family at dinner.”
Emma stood to clear the table and was convinced that her dinner was going to come right back up again.  As she loaded the dishwasher, she tried to formulate a new plan.  Stomach flu.  Respiratory infection. 24-hour tumor.  She had three days to come up with a convincing reason to stay home and avoid Evan. 

It had been several weeks since encountering the mutilated Campbell family and, if it hadn’t been for his rookie partner, Officer Scott Raines would have happily forgotten the whole bloody mess.  Since the ordeal, there had been a sharp rise in gory, violent crimes.  Kepler kept insisting they were somehow linked together.  Shortly after John Campbell and his family were delivered to the hospital, there was an attack on an orderly.  Then, there was a mugging at the grocery store.  A seventy-five year old woman was bitten, when an attacker tried to steal her pocketbook.  So far, the most gruesome had taken place on Ursinus College’s campus.  By the time the police arrived on the scene, both male and female partygoers had been shredded to the bone.  The sole survivor had lost copious amounts of blood, and was clearly in shock.  After the hospital administered some medication, she calmed down enough to speak with Kepler and Raines.  The co-ed sounded groggy but managed to stay awake long enough to give a statement. 
“Our party was totally raging.  We had loads of liquor and…oh!”  She slurred, cupping her hand over her mouth.  “I can’t believe I just told the cops I was drinking.  Please, don’t take me to jail.”
After ample reassurance, the officers finally convinced her that, as long as she told them the absolute truth, she would not be brought up on charges.
            “Okay, just remember, you promised.”  She replied.  “Anyway, a bunch of guys showed up but they looked like they had started partying long before they there.  They were really sloppy, slurring and tripping over stuff.  One of ‘em slumped in the corner and passed out.  I’m not really sure how long he was out, but it seemed like forever.  It’s so wrong, ya know, our party had been amazing.  We were sure the whole campus would be talking about it for weeks.  I guess they will, but not for the same reason.  Anyway, it wasn’t until most of the people left, or disappeared with their hook-ups, that we noticed him.  That one guy was still in the corner.  We decided to let him sleep it off and we all sort of crashed.  Some friends passed out on the sofa, and some were sleeping on the floor.  I was in my bedroom with Hunter- oh God, you cannot tell my parents that!  Seriously, you can’t, okay.”  After more reassurance, she continued.  “We heard screaming.  That’s what woke us up.  When we came out, there was blood everywhere.  My sisters were…  I don’t think I want to talk about this any more.” 
She sobbed uncontrollably.  The officers tried to comfort her but she was beyond consoling.  Her loud cries attracted the nurses, who scowled at the officers.  The more the nurses fawned over her, the louder she cried.  Finally, Officer Scott Raines’ patience was exhausted.
            “Enough!” Raines bellowed.  “I understand that you are upset, and you saw something horrible, but if you don’t help us, we can’t protect you, or anyone else.  For all we know, the murderer is still out there and you, YOU, are the only surviving witness.  Help us help you.”
            “Yeah,” Kepler added playing his role in the good cop/bad cop scenario.  “Because if you don’t, we’ll charge you with everything from obstruction of justice to underage drinking.  Not to mention, if your parents bail you out, they’ll see your rap sheet.”
The girl’s wet eyes widened and her jaw dropped.  After a minute, she regained her composure and stopped bawling.  With a deep breath, she dismissed the nurses.  She dabbed her eyes with a tissue and continued. 
            “Okay, where was I?”  Her voice wavered but she was determined to finish her statement.  “Bodies, at least three, I think, were lying on the floor, covered in blood.  It looked like someone had ripped them apart.  Parts of their insides were hanging out, spilling all over the carpet.  That boy, the one who had been passed out, he was awake.  He was crouched over Tracy and he was… eating her.  How could someone do something like that?”  She paused to wipe her eyes, as tears threatened to spill over.
              “Hunter ran over, grabbed the guy and punched him in the face.  It was like he didn’t even feel it.  He just kept coming after Hunter.  I tried to help, but he was just so strong.  He grabbed my arm and he attacked me.  See?”  She said, raising the sleeve of her hospital gown to reveal the wounds.  “Hunter yelled for me to go, get help.  I knocked on Hannah’s door because her boyfriend is really big and he does MMA.  When she didn’t answer, I thought, maybe, they were still asleep.  When I opened the door, she was all butchered, just like the others.  Her boyfriend was gnawing on her leg like it was freaking’ KFC.  I didn’t bother checking the other rooms.  I just ran back to my bedroom, grabbed my phone, and called 911.  The operator told me to lock the door and wait for the police to arrive.  I could hear Hunter screaming but I was so scared.  He’s dead isn’t he, Hunter I mean?”
The officers nodded; Hunter was dead.  They left the grief-stricken girl in the capable hands of her nurses.  As they left, Kepler slipped his card into the soft hands of a pretty nurse. 
            “If she remembers anything else, just give me a call,” he said.
 The next day, the nurse called.  The girl had died in the night, bringing the sorority party death total up to ten.   

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