Sitting atop the hood of his broken-down Chevy Impala on a quiet desert road outside the town of Zeller, New Mexico, Hal Flannery saw the boy with the pale skin and cold, black eyes. The boy had to be around twelve years old. He was pedaling away from Zeller and toward Hal on a rusty bike that sounded like a creaking old porch swing. The rider wore a faded red shirt with the Coca-Cola logo written across the chest and a gray net-back trucker’s cap.
Hal slipped off the hood of the car and planted his feet on the hot pavement. He waved his hand to meet the boy, but the child seemed to have no interest in Hal, choosing instead to ride in the center of the road and squeak past the stranded driver.
“Hey, kid, can I ask you something?” Hal said.
The boy continued slowly riding his bike past Hal, his dark eyes fixed on the flat horizon before him.
“My car went and died on me. I got an interview in Zeller,” Hal said, following the child. “I’m supposed to be at this bar called Crazy Acres.”
The boy stopped his bike. As if coming out of a trance, he took in his surroundings and looked back at Hal and the Impala.
Hal approached the boy and noticed purple sores around his cracked lips, but it was the child’s eyes that most startled him. They were not just dark, but unnaturally black, as if his pupils had grown and devoured his irises.
“I was hoping, maybe, you had a phone and you could let me use it to call the guy, tell him I’d be late. I got the number of the bar in my car,” Hal said, pointing to his Chevy. He felt foolish asking a child if he had a phone, but Hal assumed everyone had some device nowadays, including kids. Well, everyone except Hal, who prided himself on being something of a Luddite.
“Maybe you got a mom or dad coming for you, kid.” Hal said. He looked toward the town of Zeller but saw no one trailing the boy. It looked like the young rider was all by himself.
The boy coughed and ran his tongue over his bottom lip, which was as dry and splintered as the asphalt beneath their feet. He stared at Hal with wordless eyes and said, “Rory’s coming home.” The boy’s voice was hoarse and uncertain, as if speaking for the first time.
“Rory’s coming home,” the boy said again, working through each word. Then, he turned his face back to the road in front of him and started pedaling the bike away from Hal.
“Hey, kid, where the hell are you going? It’s hot as hell.”
“Rory’s coming home,” the child croaked.
“But…” Hal said. “The next town is miles away.”
“Rory’s coming home…” Hal heard the boy mutter in the distance as he pushed his way down the road, away from the town.
Hal would have to walk the rest of the way to Crazy Acres, but he figured it wouldn’t take him too long. He could see the squat tan-colored buildings of Zeller down the road.
Hal jammed a round tin of Skoal in his pocket, grabbed a bottle of water from the cooler in his back seat, and set off toward town underneath the hard sun. For the last year, Hal had managed to keep a job on an oil rig in Colorado. It was good, steady work with a decent boss, but then the place folded. With no other options, Hal took up an offer of one of his co-workers to take a bartending job for the guy’s uncle, the owner of Crazy Acres in Zeller, New Mexico. Why travel over the state line for a job in a bar? The simple answer was Hal liked moving and starting anew. Being on the road again reminded him of his existence prior to the job in Colorado, a time in which he did nothing but tramp from one anonymous town to the next. Life, he thought, has a way of going full circle.
After walking for little under an hour, Hal stopped on the outskirts of town where several cars sat abandoned on the side of the main road leading into Zeller. Hal counted thirteen vehicles in total, all empty, some with their doors left open. It was as if the owners had been in a hurry to get out.
Hal squinted, surveying the flat land that extended from either side of the road, and he saw figures in the desert, about 100 yards from him. Fifteen or twenty people, blurred by heat, shuffled oddly amid the rock and brown scrub. In the blistering light they looked like slender charcoal etchings, and Hal watched them move without apparent direction or purpose, like sleepwalkers, some going in circles and others doddering farther out into the barren land.
When Hal finally entered Zeller he knew at once something terrible had befallen the town. Just what, though, Hal could not determine. Trash and days-old newspapers covered the ground, and to the debris added his empty bottle of water. Two children, both in party hats, picked through a pile of rotting garbage on the side of the road, but scampered into an alley when they saw Hal.
Everywhere Hal looked, he saw evidence of both calamity and celebration. Globs of wet confetti clogged storm drains, and knots of limp balloons rolled down streets like tumbleweeds. Signs written by unsteady hands stood in windows and heralded the arrival of Rory, the same person about whom Hal assumed the boy had been speaking. “Welcome Home, Rory!” they said. Another: “Rory’s back!” Hal moved through the silent streets until he located Crazy Acres at the far end of the town square where Christmas lights and colored streamers hung from buildings and lamp posts like Spanish moss.
The bar was empty and its floor sticky with liquor and beer. Hal’s boots crunched on broken bottles as he navigated around overturned tables and chairs. All the signs had been torn off the walls and hurled to the floor. In the decor’s place, someone had used red paint to scrawl a message across the wall: “ZELLER WELCOMES RORY!”
“Hello? Anyone here?” Hal asked.
The kitchen door opened, and a bald man appeared behind the bar. He had the same pallid skin and black eyes as the child on the bike. Several yellow scabs pockmarked his forehead.
“Water,” Hal said. He realized he had whispered his request and so he said again, louder this time, “Water. Please.”
The man plucked a bottle of water from underneath the bar and set it on the counter. Hal walked forward and took no time chugging it back.
“I’m Hal. Hal Flannery. Are you Jack?”
“Did you hear?” the bartender asked. “Did you hear the good news, partner? Rory’s coming home.” He grinned, showing off his blackened teeth, and he pointed to the red words on the wall. “Our boy’s coming home.”
“What happened here?” Hal asked.
“I came for the job,” Hal said haltingly. “I know your nephew Carl.”
“Rory’s coming home,” the man replied.
“I heard,” Hal said, his voice tinged with worry. “I don’t know who Rory is.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Carl said it was all lined up for me,” Hal said as he appraised the destruction all around him.
The bartender nodded. “The job’s not a concern anymore.”
“What went on here?” Hal asked again. He could hear and feel the glass crunching under his boots as he took a step backward.
A smile formed on the bartender’s face, and Hal slowly made his way to the front door while never taking his eyes off the man. Hal knew he had to get out of the bar, the gravity of the situation becoming apparent. Hal’s mind was only now catching up to his legs, already in slow motion, and he found himself experiencing an entirely unfamiliar sensation. He was aware of his body’s panicked operations — the muscles tensing, heart racing, perspiration forming on his brow — but he seemed powerless to regulate them. His arms and legs rebelled against Hal, and he could not force a word from his mouth or even turn his back to the bartender and run out the front door.
Hal took another step backwards, all the while watching the man behind the bar, yet unable to quicken his pace, even as his breath grew short and a torpid bead of sweat inched down his forehead and into the valley of his right eye.
“You don’t gotta worry about anything anymore,” the bartender said.
The strange terror that had dulled Hal’s reflexes began to lift, and he managed to spin around and push open the front door. Daylight flooded the bar, and Hal sprinted outside into the town square, stopping only when he saw that Zeller had come alive. The residents — or at least that’s who Hal assumed the people were — wore soiled, torn clothing and all had the same white skin, black eyes, and vacant expressions. They walked in a single long line, each of them helping to carry simple wooden stretchers on which lay what appeared to be bodies.
“What’s happening?” Hal asked the procession as he raced toward them.
“They couldn’t take it,” a black-eyed woman said. A festering sore had nearly consumed her entire nose. “They didn’t have the patience to wait for Rory,” she said. “The wait…the wait just killed them.”
Hal’s stomach turned at the realization that the townspeople were indeed carrying corpses, the bodies of men, women, and children. Some of the deceased had been afforded a modicum of respect, having had sheets tossed over them. Others, he began to see, lay uncovered, nude or in the clothes they had worn when their lives ended. A few looked as though they had simply fallen asleep and never woken up, whereas others displayed signs of trauma: bullet holes, wrists slashed, a ring of bruises around the throat, eyes wide with panic, mouths locked in never-ending screams. Though wads of blow flies loitered around the corpses, Hal estimated that most had died quite recently, as the heat had not eaten away at them yet.
“They did it in all manner of ways,” the black-eyed woman added. “Little Laura-Louise drowned herself in her mama’s tub,” she said, pointing to a tiny body wrapped in a checkered picnic blanket. One of the girl’s naked legs hung out from under the cloth, a blade of sunlight ricocheting off her pale shin.
“No, no, no…” Hal mumbled to himself.
The black-eyed woman melted back into the procession, and the winding line of residents carried the dead down the road toward the edge of town.
An obese man wearing a seersucker blazer clapped his hands and laughed. “Rory’s coming!” he shouted. “Rory’s coming!”
“You’re all a bunch of goddamn lunatics!” Hal shouted. “Murderers!”
The others in line imitated the fat man’s clapping. Some screamed and raised their hands to the air like ecstatic church congregants. Others danced wildly, their black eyes rolling back in their heads and their tongues swinging out of their mouths. The townspeople dropped the stretchers and the corpses fell out onto the street.
“Rory! Rory!” the people shrieked. “Rory’s coming!”
Hal spotted a rusted green pickup truck at the tail end of the procession. It was a Chevrolet, probably twenty years old, and it looked like it was on its last leg. Hacking up plumes of gray smoke, the truck inched behind the congregants until the driver sprung from the still-moving Chevy, picked himself up from the ground, and joined a group of raving townspeople as his truck rolled away from him.
Hal sprinted to the vehicle and gasped when he saw that a pile of half-naked corpses filled the truck bed. He climbed into the Chevy’s cabin and pressed his foot to the brake pedal, took one final look at the wild-eyed residents of Zeller jabbering in the square, and sped out of town. In minutes he was bombing down the highway, the corpses bouncing behind him in the bed of the truck with every jolt.
In the desperate hope of figuring out something — anything — Hal turned the radio on, but wherever he spun the dial talk of Rory and his imminent arrival broke through the static. The word was spreading.
“Quit your job! Sell your house! Sell the kids! Rory is coming home!”
There was nothing Hal could do, except maybe cry. Or laugh.
And so he laughed, harder than he had in years. He laughed as he listened to the frantic transmissions. He laughed as he sped down the highway toward what looked like fires burning on the horizon, and he laughed with dizzying excitement at the prospect that soon, very soon, Rory would be coming home.
Benjamin is a high school history and government teacher. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Boston University, a master’s in Library Science from the University of Pittsburgh, and a master’s in Education from Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. His nonfiction writing has appeared in Education Week and Edutopia. Most recently he won First Place in the Horror Category for the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. His short story “Tree Gifts”will appear in the May/June edition of writersdigest.com.
Image by renategranade0 from Pixabay
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