The Last Words of Franz Stilgaart

I found Franz Stilgaart in his run-down apartment across the river, just like the Monsieur’s man I’d met in the alley said I would, drinking wine from a cheap goblet, seated staring out a tiny window at the Monk’s Bridge, his back toward the door and me. Careless.

It was a thing of ease to sneak up behind him and catch him unawares; when I slipped the blade into his back and felt the familiar warmth stain my hands he made no sound. He turned his head to face me, his last expression one of simply not understanding.

I wiped my knife on his filthy rags and left his dead body bleeding on the floor.

So imagine my surprise when three weeks later I came home to flat above the markets, only to find him standing in my living room, very much alive. Just like the first time, there were no words: my surprise turned to action and I felt my feet gain life beneath me and I tackled him.

We wrestled on the floor. I felt my hands around his neck and him gasping for air. I found my knife in my belt and slipped it into him for the second time, this time in the pale white skin of his throat.

All I can think of now are the last words of Franz Stilgaart, the words he gasped out when I murdered him for the second time, and have robbed me of my sleep this last fortnight, and I can only imagine will for many more to come. How long? How long will his words continue to haunt me? Until I meet my end just like him, the man I killed twice?

“There’s nothing,” he’d said. “There’s nothing on the other side.”

Dr. Death

They call me Dr. Death.

I offer a service, as discreetly and humanely and as painlessly as possible, to shuffle those off this mortal coil who cannot do the shuffling on their own. Those who are broken. Those who are beaten. Those who are so tired but cannot bring themselves fall asleep.

Do no harm, the oath says; but who’s to say that if someone is suffering, really, truly suffering, that the act of putting them out of their misery is doing more harm than good? That ending a life cannot be a benevolent act? An act of healing? An act of righteousness?

I am bound to a chair. There is blood everywhere on the floor beneath me. I’d never have thought a person could bleed so much and still be alive.

“I’m not afraid to die,” I say once more to my captor. The words come out slowly and quietly, choked whispers. I’m gasping for air again and I don’t recognize my own voice. “I’ve seen hundreds of others do it. I’m not afraid…”

“You killed her!” he screams, for what seems like the thousandth time. The bloody straight razor hangs from his hand at his side. He is covered in my blood. My vision is blurring and I can’t see his face anymore. His voice sounds garbled and distorted. “You took her away from me!”

“She wanted to die…” I gasp weakly. “She asked me to do it…”

My vision is fading. This is it. I feel myself slipping away. And then, far off, a pin prick in my arm, again. He’s stabbed another needle into me and is pushing the plunger.

He draws his face close to mine and I see it clearly now. He is grinning wickedly.

“Not yet,” he says. “Not yet.”

They call me Dr. Death. What I’d give now for my own medicine.

The Collector

You’ve gotta have a reason to get up in the morning, otherwise there’s no point in living.

Me, I’m a collector. A collector of rarities. I figure it’s the sort of hobby most people would get into gradually, but hey, not me. My interest came in a flash of inspiration, right as I was about to pull the trigger of the shotgun in my mouth. It was the only thing I was living for. It’d been two years since I’d seen another uninfected. As far as I knew, I was the only goddamn person left in the world that hadn’t turned into a walker. They were eating each other for sustenance, or simply fading away. It took a surprisingly long time.

I kept their parts in jars.

The thrill I got from the danger made it worth it. Some times I’d lure a single one away and then take what I wanted after dispatching it, others I’d pick one in a group off from afar, usually with the rifle, then barrel in guns blazing on the others, slice off a piece and run. Smash-and-grab.

But those thrills were nothing compared to the ones from finding rarities. I got a rush of excitement, a surge of pure joy when I discovered my first on the inexplicably undecayed back of a man: a beautiful giant Oriental tattoo of tigers hunting in the jungle. I think he must have been a biker before, or some kind of criminal. Others followed: a nearly perfect, almost normal-looking human ear from a young girl; a glass eye from a fat salesman-looking type; a hand with six fingers; a double belly-button; and the list went on. Soon my cellar was lined with jars filled of pickled oddities. I was becoming a regular sideshow purveyor and had never felt happier, despite having no one to share it with.

It happened when I was out in the badlands, far outside the city. The engine made strange noises as I drove there in the Jeep; I worried that I might have to find a new one soon.

The Eagle remained unfired at my side. I felled the lone walker I found with the hatchet instead, and the adrenaline coursing through my veins afterward felt amazing. He’d almost bit me. One of these days I was going to get infected, I just knew it. But my adrenaline rush soon fell flat in disappointment when the body turned up nothing of interest. I kicked the rotting corpse aside, then kicked it again in frustration.

When I got back to the Jeep, there was a man in sunglasses and a slouch hat leaning against it. He was grinning widely and his teeth shone in the bright light of the afternoon.

“Hello,” he said, and raised a strange-looking gun.

That’s the last thing I remember before I woke up. It’s very dark down here but my eyes have adjusted. I can see there are others too, chained up like I am.

It seems I’m not the only uninfected after all. Nor the only collector.

Shitbox

When the engine burst into flames, I calmly turned the wheel and let my car slowly come to a stop by the side of the road. I got out of the car and watched the fire rage beneath the hood, long flames shooting up into to the arid desert sky, pouring black soot from their tips. I didn’t have a fire extinguisher. I didn’t know what to do.

The road stretched off to the horizon in either direction, a thin grey line disappearing into infinities.

I took my things from the backseat and stood a safe distance from the Chevy. I waited for the engine to explode, like in the movies, but it didn’t. The flames finally just died down, like in real life, and the two of us, me and the old Chevy, sat by the long line of gray pavement in silence.

What a shitbox, I thought.

I did this on purpose, you know, the car echoed back. This what you get for treating me the way you always have. For thinking you could take me on this hare-brained cross-country scheme you had planned to see that slut of yours without so much as giving me an oil change. So there. You deserve this.

You know what? Maybe you’re right, I thought.

The engine was smouldering. I grabbed the rest of my things from the back. No bars on my phone and maybe an hour of battery. A bottle of water. My suitcase. Miles and miles of desert.

What had I been thinking?

You brought this on yourself, the Chevy said with malice. You brought this on ourselves.

I know, I thought. I know.

I left the car by the side of the highway and began to walk.

In the trunk, her body was lifeless. I wondered if soon mine would be too.

Layover

The explosion tore through the terminal like shattered glass through sinews and flesh.

Then gunshots came – shotgun blasts, I thought they were, though of course I wouldn’t know – and people screaming. Then it was just this rising wave of panic that I could absolutely just feel in the open air of the terminal, and more blasts, echoing down the glass-roofed atrium past the ‘D’ gates, and screaming, and people were running, and the din of the wheels of their luggage rolling on concrete was deafening.

I stood, frozen, like a stone in a stream with a raging river passing around me.

Farther down I saw two security guards running, the crisp white of their shirts beneath their bullet-proof vests soaked red with blood, and behind them a man giving chase. Two men. Then a whole horde came stampeding around the corner. They were all bearing down fast on me and I just stood there like a deer in the headlights.

Finally I found myself and joined the fleeing throngs around me, the wheels of my luggage joining the cacophonous chorus being played, and I tore down the floor of terminal.

The second blast came from the other side of the airport in front of me, and this time the screams of everyone around arose immediately and loudly and the palpable panic in the air grew even higher. I saw more people come running around the other side on the far end, rounding the corner near the Mexican restaurant. They were waving their arms and their mouths were open. They were making horrible noises. They were covered in blood.

I heard the loudspeakers all around come alive into too-loud static, then into the voice of a woman, trying to sound as calm as she urged everyone in the terminal to be: “Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm… this is an Emergency. Proceed to the nearest exit as quickly as you can. Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm, and proceed to the nearest exit. Emergency response personnel are on their way… please remain calm. This is an Emergency…”

They were closing in and I was going to be pinched in the middle. Something overcame me, something hard and sharp and tight in my chest and I ran, ran and turned sharply and before I knew what I was doing I ducked into a handicap bathroom and locked the door behind me.

There was something wrong with them. Something in their eyes. Their skin too, I saw, at just the last moment. The screams are so loud now, they’re everywhere, and gunshots. I can hear them, those people, those things – growling, and sounds, wet sounds.

They’re eating them. They’re… they’re monsters. What do I do?

Beasts

We burst through the upper atmosphere, our dead ship falling to earth like a steel stone, klaxons blaring loud and all the lights red and flashing inside, blinding all sensation. The hull glowed angry red and flames and smoke of rage trailed from the vessel. It must have been a beautiful sight from the ground.

Only McGrady, Whittle and I survived. The Captain took the joystick right through the ribcage like the spear of an angry native.

It was black, black as pitch, and the jungle of the planet we’d crashed into awaited outside the mangled steel door of the ship. Noises, from outside. Insects. And animals.

McGrady had the blaster. The only other thing we could scrounge up was a handful of flares. Everything else was gone, jettisoned with the cargo.

I lit the first flare and it exploded into an unreal red flame. I saw Whittle’s pudgy white face glow beneath it. We tramped through the humid underbrush, scarcely able to see anything, not knowing where we were going.

As we hiked the noises got worse, deep growls. Roars. Sounds that made us think of mouths full of sharp teeth and vicious hungry claws and scaly backs and eyes that saw us in the dark.

When the first flare went out I reached to light the second. That was all it took. Something pounced and I heard Whittle scream and all was blackness and fighting. I heard McGrady fire the blaster. When the red flame finally came alive I saw Whittle’s terrified face as he was dragged off into the brush. Then there was only his screams and wet, snapping sounds and growls and the sound of him being devoured.

McGrady’s blaster shook in his hand. They kept their distance from the flare. Until it ran out again and they got him. The soldier’s screams were even worse than those of Whittle’s had been. I heard the things tear him in half with a wet crackling snap and then all was silent. There was two of them now.

I’m crouched on a log now, huddled down. I think there’s a third, I can hear them all circling.

The flare is burning low. I know it will only last so long.

Canes

I walked out of the lobby and into the broad light of day. Far off, down the sidewalk, I saw an old man ambling toward me, a long black cane in his hand, tapping against the grey stone.

The light changed and I crossed. I rounded the corner and saw the street filled with people – old people, young people, businessmen in suits, middle-aged couples with young children.

In each and every one of their hands was a black cane, tapping against the sidewalk. The din was like roar of a thousand sea monsters, pulling doomed viking ships down into dark stormy waters.

A young boy looked up to me, his eyes sharp and cutting.

“You!” he said, and pointed with his cane. Everyone in the street stopped and turned to face me. The din ceased as all the walking sticks were held just aloft of the pavement beneath.

Then they all rushed me, black wooden sticks flying in the area as they ran.

They encircled me and rained blow after blow down upon me with the hardness of the canes. I screamed out for them to stop, not understanding what was happening, where I was, what this was. I felt the stinging blows exploding into pain over and over in my leg. I felt my shin bone shatter. I screamed again and the flurry of black wood increased until everything turned black.

I awoke in my hotel room, and turned to rise out of bed. My leg ached again, as it always did when the weather was wet. I grabbed the black cane from my bedside, and hobbled over toward the bathroom to shower.

The Dark Stranger

I entered the bar and its tender turned from beneath the neon glow of beer signs above his domain to face me. The place was dank and cold, open and empty; it was just him, his grizzled face and balding head reflecting the amber light toward me, and only few others dotting the tables here and there in the place. Besides them there was only one lone man sat at the bar, drinking beer from a glass. He wore a dark overcoat and had not turned to face me when I entered as the other patrons had.

The bartender walked over toward my end and looked me in the eye: “What’ll it be?” he said, his stubbled-covered jowls flapping as he spoke.

“Whiskey,” I said. “On ice.” “You got it,” he said, and disappeared back toward the bottles of precious spirit, lining the shelf behind the bar like soldiers standing at attention.

I watched him pour a glass of the amber liquid and cubes embrace it as they shifted in the glass. He replaced the bottle and returned to me.

“Thanks,” I said, taking a first sip of the warm liquid. It burned in my mouth pleasantly. “No problem, bud.” He wiped his hairy arm against his sweaty forehead and grunted.

As I drank the warm spirit from the tumbler, I took in my surroundings and looked longer at the other patrons. There was a couple in the back corner, huddled deep down into a booth of red leather, arms around each other and eyes locked together, oblivious to everything, save for each other and their glasses of poison.

A large biker sat a table in the center of the place. He drank a cheap beer – a PBR it looked like – in long, slow drags, and laughed occasionally at the commercials on the TV. His giant gut shook when he did so, beneath a filthy shirt and a vest made of leather.

Finally my eyes turned toward the man sitting at the bar alone. There was something strange about him, something not quite right, that I couldn’t put my finger on. I could feel it, even from far away. He didn’t look up to watch the televisions right in front of him. He didn’t look up at the bartender when the man walked by. He just sat there with his head down into his drink, black shoulder-length hair hiding his face, and this strange darkness, this strange atmosphere, seeming to exude from him and cut him off from everything around.

The bar felt colder as I watched the strange pale man sip his beer.

“Shitty night they’re having, ain’t it?” The bartender was back in front of me again. “Yeah, real shame it is,” I said. I drained the last of my drink. “Another?” “Yeah, please.” He disappeared to the rows of soliders standing at attention again.

The stranger rose from his seat, and still I could not see his face. I watched him reach deep into the dark folds of his overcoat, reaching for something, and I saw the expressions of the other patrons in the bar begin to match my own: falling, long and languid, into shock, terror, uncertainty, as if in slow motion.

From the dark folds of his coat, the man pulled something, something shiny and silver. A butterknife. No, that wasn’t it. It was hard to see in the dimness of the place. I watched him bring it to his throat and it was then I realized what it was.

A straight razor.

The bartender made as if to speak, but the stranger beat him to it.

He turned to face me and looked me square in the eyes and his eyes were blacker than midnight, blacker than the burned flesh of all the souls suffering in Hell, and he spoke:

“We all die alone,” he said coldly. “And you will too.”

And then in an instant he sliced the blade across his throat in one sudden jerk, and the other patrons in the bar screamed and I felt my blood grow cold and my legs turn to jelly, and my eyes suddenly feel like they were one too many sizes big enough for their sockets. The blood spurted everywhere, shooting out in long red geysers, painting the black overcoat of the dying man, painting in red the bar and all the bottles behind it, and all I could see was the blood, the blood and the darkness and the sweat on the bartender’s cue-ball forehead glistening beneath the amber radiance of the Amstel Light sign above him.

The man collapsed to his knees and the woman in the booth screamed. Blood pooled around his crumpled body and finally I found myself and stood, but no words came. I acted as if a man possessed. I ran over to the body, not thinking, moving without a mind, and took his blood-soaked form into my arms. His head lolled back on his neck sickeningly and his eyes were blank and empty and face smeared with blood.

“Call 9-11!” I heard the girl scream.

In one hand I held him, and the other escaped from beneath the weight of his body. That hand shook above the pool of blood I knelt in, and found its way down to the filthy hardwood of the floor. To the handle of the implement that had fallen from the stranger’s hand once it had finished its dirty work. Mother of Pearl.

I held up the blade before my face and it shook in my hand, and as I read the words engraved into the luminescent handle I felt every hair on my body rise:

YOU’RE NEXT

The Collections Men

No one knows who first started saying it, but now we all say it. We all say it because it’s the best thing you can say to let them know that something’s different, that something’s fundamentally changed, and for them to stop a take a beat. Which, of course, is exactly what they need to do.

You see, they’re always surprised to see us when we turn up. To learn that there is no Grim Reaper; just us suits, us mortals working our day jobs, day-in, day-out. I guess it all really is kind of strange, when I stop to think about it. But in the short time we’re talking I don’t really have time to get into how I became a suit, or about Hell Inc., or why He decided they should outsource their collections back to our mortal plane, and insisted on such secrecy around it.

Derek had to explain to me my first week on the job, you see, that they don’t remember. Even if they die in some horrific fashion, like getting crushed by a falling scaffold or blown away by a policeman’s shotgun or even doing the job themselves with a bathtub and razor blade, they never remember. They just wake up, confused and unharmed, with us suits staring back at them and then we say it. It’s the worst for the ones who die in their sleep, when they wake up and think it’s just a regular morning, and we’re there to tell them they’re going to Hell. And that there is no Heaven. But we don’t really have time to get into that either.

“I’m beat,” I said to Derek, “I’m going to call it a night.”

“Sure man,” he said, watching a cop car scream by with sirens flashing. “I’ll get the last one. Cya tomorrow.”

“Cya.” I went home and collapsed into bed. I didn’t even bother take off my suit.

When I woke up Derek was there in the house waiting for me, sitting in the chair in the living room, cigarette in hand, its long plume rising toward the ceiling.

“What’s up?” I said. “Another early start, or some fire to put out?”

Derek turned toward me with a look in his eyes I’d never seen before.

“Please, just take a moment.”

When the AC came on

I live in a condo
a big box of concrete
and glass
in the sky

Every year, summer’s begin
there’s the time
in-between
when the heat is off
and the AC too

too hot

Yesterday I stood
in the kitchen
alone
felt finally the coolness overtake me
with relief

then realization
there was no sound
realization

10 years to the day
He’d thrown himself from our balcony
34th floor
I found his note in the bedroom
“Julia, there’s nothing for me
in this world
anymore

i’m sorry”

I stood
in the kitchen
alone
and heard his scream
behind the glass of the door
to the world outside
and our potted plants on concrete

the coolness passed
but my chill’s remained
today the AC came on
already my coldness