(2011)  No infringement upon the rightful owners of "Combat!" and the characters thereof is intended.  This piece of fan fiction is for enjoyment only, and in no way will the author gain monetary profit from its existence.

 

  

"Teeth of a Dragon"

by Thompson Girl

 

 

A girl’s voice drifted through the night air, singing in a language Hanley didn’t recognize.  The words didn’t quite have the lilt of French, and it sounded to Hanley like a lot of nonsense syllables.  All long vowels and ells that supported her happy, pattering tune.  He might have asked Caje, only Caje was bringing up the rear of their ragged, exhausted line.  And there was something about the night air that commanded silence. 

Hanley looked ahead to where Saunders kept watch at the edge of a large field, letting the rest of the squad catch up.

It felt like they’d been running half the night.  The Germans had broken through as if the American lines hadn’t even existed.  First squad had been separated from the rest of the platoon in the mad, pell-mell retreat to escape the Tiger tanks and German soldiers who had not stopped coming. 

Hanley let his gaze roam past Saunders’ still figure, across the dead field ahead.  The harvest had left only short, barren stalks behind.  Yellow leaves, looking like discarded doubloons in the moonlight, littered the furrows.  Mist swirled around the trunks of the tall conifers that stood sentinel-like at the left border of the field.  He could smell the moisture of the mist, and the distinctive odors of wet soil and decaying vegetation.  The sky itself was cloudless, cold and clear.  Stars glittered.  The moon was waxing gibbous, washing out the lesser stars with its glow.

By that light, he could see clear across the field to the grassy hills on the far side.  To his surprise, no farmhouse, no barn, not even a chicken coop crowned that hill.  The field had been clearly been recently tended, but where the owners of this land lived, Hanley could not guess.  He wasn’t sure why it bothered him.

No, he did know why.  Their wild retreat from the lost battle had taken them off his map.  He had no idea where they were anymore.  Where they should have run into their lines, they’d found only forest.  No roads, no supply lines, no scouts, no U.S. Army – no German army either – no signs that they weren’t alone in the world.  This harvested field was the first sign of people they’d encountered.  But it didn’t feel comforting.  It felt dead, deserted.  And the way the fingers of mist crept toward them through the trees, the lack of a nearby barn or house… it left Hanley unnerved.  Buildings represented humanity.  They represented shelter and safety.  And after what they’d been through this night, he wanted to be inside four solid walls.  Even having the rest of the squad and their firepower nearby no longer encouraged him.  Not in this eerie, moonlit landscape.

It was just the exhaustion after the rout.  What lay before them was simply an empty field, he told himself.  A field they could skirt, staying in the shadows of the border trees and forest.  Only the girl’s voice cheered him, rising and falling in some French or gypsy folksong.  What was more innocent than a girl, singing on a moonlit night?  There was nothing ominous about it.  Nothing.  Rather the opposite, he thought.  Her voice seemed to call to him, to beckon him on, to promise… something.  If only he could figure out where she was.  Her singing was all around him, and nowhere, oddly directionless.

His self-reassurances fell flat, and he had to content himself with knowing that at least his worries were internal, that no one else knew that this empty field raised the hair on the back of his neck.

“Lieutenant?” he heard Littlejohn say softly.  “Do we move out?”

Hanley tried to make out his face in the moonlight, see if any of his own fears were mirrored, but Littlejohn simply looked anxious to be moving, not sitting.

The rest of the squad gathered up, and Hanley could hear them breathing hard, see the knees threatening to buckle.  They were as exhausted as he was.  Their latest replacement, Lewis, swayed on his feet.

“Wish that girl’d shut up,” Kirby muttered.  “She gives me the creeps.”

“It’s just a little girl,” Lewis said.

“Oh yeah?” Kirby shot back.  “Where is she, then, huh?  How come there’s no house here?”

Littlejohn had no answer to that. 

Neither did Hanley.  “Caje?” he asked.  “What’s she singing about?”

“It’s not French,” the Cajun said and shrugged.

Saunders turned from his scrutiny of the field to join them.  Normally, the sergeant’s presence was reassuring.  This time, when Saunders turned to look at him and the pale moonlight caught his face, all Hanley could see was a ghost.  A ghost wearing Saunders’ face.  He almost jumped when out of the planes and shadows of the ghost’s face, the mouth moved and a voice came out, normal and real:  “Lieutenant?”

Hanley blinked, and Saunders was solid again.  Hanley gestured across the field, trying to hide his unease.  “We’ll see if there’s a farmhouse over that far hill that we can take shelter in.  Saunders, take the point.” 

Saunders turned to go, when Littlejohn interrupted, “Wait!  Listen!  She’s stopped.”

“What?” Hanley asked.

“That girl.  She’s stopped singing.”

The squad fell quiet.  Her voice and her happy melody, despite the unusualness of it all, had calmed the edges of the night.  Without her singing, the silence seemed to swarm out of the sky, pressing downward with glasslike precision, leaving them in a strange void.  A strange shushing sound seemed to come from across the field, but there was no wind and the dark tree tops weren’t swaying.  The only thing moving somehow was the mist, and it couldn’t make a noise… could it?

“Happy now?” Lewis murmured to Kirby.

“All right,” Hanley said, “Let’s move out.  Saunders?”  He watched the sergeant turn to go, the rest of the men stringing out to follow, and abruptly he added, “Don’t set foot in the field.”  

The men looked at him curiously, but he couldn’t shake the feeling, so he said again, strongly, “Go around it.  Don’t touch the field.”  Don’t touch any part of it, don’t even look at it, he wanted to add, but he knew he already sounded ridiculous, so he left it at that.  

Saunders took the command in stride, simply nodded and took off, skirting to the right of the plowed soil.  One by one, the squad wearily jogged after him.  Hanley waved the men past until he was the last one.  Without the girl’s voice, he felt the prickle raise the hairs on the back of his neck, like something was not only watching, but hunting them.  He listened to the woods behind them, but the trees lay peaceful and serene.  It was still the open land ahead that bothered him.  He waited, crouched at the edge of the field, watching the men go, holding his breath as they swung around the nearest corner of the field, the easiest place to cut across and touch the dirt of the field.

But none cut the corner, and the squad was soon running along the grassy verge bordering the length of the field.  Hanley sighed and prepared to follow, when Kirby twisted his ankle and stumbled sideways.  His left boot plunged into the field, sinking partway into the dirt and catching there.  His momentum and the stuck boot threw him off balance, and he fell hard on his side.

Hanley felt like someone had poured ice water down his shirt. 

He shivered and rose from his crouch, running around the corner of the field to catch up with the squad.  Caje and Nelson had stopped to help Kirby get back to his feet.  They weren’t moving nearly fast enough to suit Hanley.  Saunders had stopped farther ahead with Littlejohn, Doc, and Lewis, but Hanley waved them on.  He didn’t want them bunched up.  Not here, not now.

“What’s going on?” he demanded softly as he came up beside Kirby. 

“His boot’s stuck,” Nelson said.  Caje had hold of Kirby, and Nelson had grabbed his leg.  Both pulled, Kirby tugging backwards with them.  The B.A.R. man gave a soft cry of pain, and the boot didn’t budge.

“Ow, watch my ankle,” Kirby muttered.  “I think I sprained it.”

Hanley uneasily watched the three of them struggling.  He knelt beside them and let his eyes trace over the moonlit field again, searching for danger.  Mist still crept out of the woods, licking through a small orchard of gnarled apple trees on the opposite side of the field.  The bare branches shredded the mist as it passed through, leaving white tatters on the other side. 

“Get out of the way,” Hanley said and set his carbine down on the grass.  “Let me try.”

He grabbed hold of Kirby’s boot.  His fingers brushed the cold, wet mud of the field, and he shuddered.  He gave a hard yank, and to his complete surprise, the boot came clear easily with a squelching wet noise.  He and Kirby tumbled onto the grass.  Hanley said, “Guess you guys worked it loose.”

A hand rose of the hole left by Kirby’s boot, the spread-eagled fingers clawing the air.  Hanley jumped.  The reaching fingers snapped closed like a bear trap around Kirby’s ankle and immediately started pulling.  Kirby yelped.  Both his feet slid into the field, and no sooner had his right foot touched the soil when a second hand rose out of the dirt to tighten around Kirby’s other leg.  This time Kirby’s yell was one of pain, and he thrashed and kicked.  Hanley and Caje each grabbed one of Kirby’s arms and pulled back.

It was like trying to free the B.A.R. man from a sinking block of concrete.  They couldn’t budge him, and he was sucked deeper into the field with each passing second.  His calves vanished, and then his knees.  Nelson joined them, and that slowed Kirby’s descent slightly.

“Get me outta here!” Kirby yelled, struggling to break free.

Saunders and the rest of the squad returned, and Saunders waved urgently at Hanley, Caje, and Nelson.  “Lean back, get outta the way!”  He was already raising his Thompson, and the men did as Saunders ordered.  Saunders loosed a burst of bullets into the dirt, carefully aimed not to hit Kirby’s legs.  The staccato sound of the submachine gun seemed unbearably loud in that empty, quiet night.  Hanley winced, but abruptly realized that Kirby was loose.  He and Caje hauled the B.A.R. man out of the field, not stopping until they were well clear of the field edge.  Kirby gasped for air.  His legs were mud-stained up to his thighs. 

Saunders stood at the edge of the field, Thompson still ready to shoot.  “What was that?”

“You tell me!” Kirby said.  “There’s something in there!”

“We’re getting out of here,” Hanley said softly, surprised at how calm his voice sounded.  It certainly didn’t mirror the worry he felt inside.  “Kirby, can you walk?”

“Just watch me!” Kirby said, and with Caje’s help, he was on his feet, hopping a little unsteadily and wincing whenever he put weight on the sprained ankle, but ready to go.

“Saunders?” Hanley said.

“I’ll follow last,” the sergeant said.  His eyes had not left the field.  Hanley nodded, picked up his carbine, and took a last look at the churned-up mud pit left where Kirby had nearly been sucked down.  Hanley’s mind wanted to put a rational explanation on it.  All the rain lately, the field liquefied to some sort of quicksand state… but he had seen those hands rising on grey-tinged forearms right out of the earth.  And there was nothing rational about that.  He shivered and led the way, moving fast, exhaustion defeated by adrenalin.

The girl had not resumed her song, and now he could hear every little sound the squad made as they jogged beside the field.  The jingle of canteens on belts, the rattle of rifle straps, and the tup tup tup of running boots on grass.  And behind it all, that strange shushing noise.  Hanley glanced sideways and saw the fog spreading, regrouping beyond the orchard, mending its frayed edges into a thicker front.

He heard a squelching noise behind them.  It sounded just like the noise made by the hand reaching out of the mud for Kirby, only louder.  A second squelch followed, then a third, fourth.  Hanley stopped running.  The footsteps had already stopped behind him, the men halting unbidden, their gazes drawn backwards. 

Things were rising out of the middle of the harvested field.  Like pumpkins growing too fast, or… Hanley felt his mouth dropping open.  Heads.  Heads on bodies.  Rising as if pushed from below.  A dozen of them, no… more movement caught his attention, and he saw more of them.  Another dozen clawing their way to the surface, breaking free of the mud.  The field was coming alive with…

“What the hell?” Kirby muttered.

The first bodies tugged their legs free and, almost as one, they turned directly toward the squad and started staggering across the field toward them.

“Move!” Hanley hissed.  “Keep going.  There’s gotta be a farmhouse up ahead.”

“What are those things?” Kirby said.

“Move!” Hanley practically shouted at him.  Kirby took off after the rest of the squad.  Saunders came up beside Hanley, and the two watched the field.  More and more creatures were rising, pulling themselves free.  None of them moved with any speed; an easy jog would outdistance all of them.  But there was also something inexorable about their slow, staggering progress.  When the main bulk of the squad moved away, Hanley saw the creatures shift their direction and angle to follow.  The closest ones kept walking toward Saunders and Hanley.  A couple had their arms outstretched, reaching hungrily.

“Saunders…” Hanley murmured.

“I’m not sure a farmhouse is going to keep those things out,” Saunders said, just as softly, calmly.

“Can they leave the field?”

Saunders gave a humorless laugh.  The first stumbling creature was less than twenty feet away.  “You want to stick around and find out?”

They ran, sprinting at first, then settling into a jog.  The squad waited for them at the far end of the field.  None of the creatures had risen here, they had all surfaced at the other end, though every one of them had re-oriented and were lurching down the field toward the squad at that same slow but inescapable pace.

“What are they?” Lewis asked, fear making his voice quaver.

Hanley just shook his head.  He’d never seen anything like those creatures that had emerged from the field.  They needed a plan, and they needed one fast.  He was used to being hunted in this war, of evading and attacking… but not like this.  Not by something… unnatural.  There was no other way to explain the things that had torn themselves free of the field to stalk human prey.

Hanley turned and ordered, “Caje, you and Littlejohn—check over that hill.  There has to be a farmhouse around here.  Find it.”

The two men nodded and took off at a jog.

“The rest of you, spread out and get your weapons ready.  Let’s see if we can’t stop these things where they are.”

Saunders stepped closer.  “More gunfire might alert any Krauts in the area.”

“Right now, I’d take on the whole German army if it meant those things would disappear back into the muck they came from.”

Saunders removed the magazine from his Thompson, checked it, then slammed it back in.  “So we discourage them?”

Hanley nodded.

The squad raised their weapons, and Hanley lifted the carbine up to his shoulder.  “Fire!” he said.  The volley shook the air, reverberating off the wall of the forest.  Hanley watched the creature he had sighted in on jerk, and he fired four more shots into it.  It slowed, knocked backwards slightly, then it staggered on, unaffected.  Kirby mowed down several with his B.A.R., and those fell backwards, arms flopping limply on the dirt.  Same with the other squad members.  They emptied their clips and magazines, and every bullet found a target.  Every target seemed to jerk or fall down.  And one by one, each got back to its feet and kept coming.

Every one of them.

“Lieutenant?” Nelson said.  “I think we got a big problem.”

Kirby summed it up more succinctly and satisfyingly for Hanley with a burst of colorful swearing.  The B.A.R. man replaced his magazine and fired on the closest two creatures.  The bullets tore off one of the creature’s arms.  It paused, bracing itself as if leaning into a strong wind until the gunfire stopped, then it marched onwards, completely unaffected by loss of the arm now lying forgotten behind it in the field.

The closest creatures were less than fifty feet away now, shambling crookedly.  “What are they wearing?” Hanley asked suddenly, squinting in the diffuse moonlight.  “Why does it look like uniforms?”

“German uniforms!” Kirby agreed grimly.

“And American,” Littlejohn added quietly.

“What?”

“Look at that guy there, on the right.”  Littlejohn pointed.  “That’s a G.I. uniform.”

Hanley stared, picking out the lines of the indicated soldier, the rounded helmet, and he realized Littlejohn was right.  The thought gave him even more chills. 

“Look!” Lewis said.  “There’s some civilians out there too.”

“The field must have been some kind of graveyard,” Hanley said, thinking aloud.  He saw the horrified looks the men cast his way and said, “You got another explanation for those zombies out there?”

“Zombies,” Nelson whispered, as if trying the word on for size.

“Are you kidding me?” Kirby muttered.  “There’s no such thing.”

“Are you sure?” Nelson asked.  “I think the lieutenant’s right.  Those sure look like zombies to me.  Like something out of the movies.”

“Come on,” Hanley said. “Cut the chatter and let’s back up.”  He was waiting for the important question to be answered… could the zombies leave the field?  Or were they bound by its mud-tracked sink.  If their bullets couldn’t stop the creatures but the field border could…

He gestured the men to keep backing up, keeping a good fifty feet between them and the approaching monsters.  He didn’t have to ask them twice.  The men retreated steadily, never turning their backs on the zombie creatures.  Even Kirby was moving quickly, hobbling on his sprained ankle, uniform pants still coated in mud from his close call, making no complaint.  His B.A.R., normally one of the weapons Hanley relied on in a fire fight, suddenly didn’t seem so adequate any more.  If gunfire couldn’t stop the creatures, what would?  He’d never been one for reading or watching horror stories, and from his limited experience, he couldn’t remember any solutions provided by fiction either.

The closest zombie was only a couple feet from the edge of the field.  Hanley watched in morbid fascination.  He half-expected the zombie to draw up sharply as if it had run into a glass wall.  It didn’t.  It staggered up right out of the plowed area and into the wild grass.  Without hesitating.

Hanley swore.  He could hear the thing grunting with each step, and behind it a chorus of similar noise as the other zombies seemed to shamble faster after the first successful breach of the field edge.  “Come on!” he said, and even though he tried to sound calm, he could hear the desperation tingeing his voice.  The boundaries of the field hadn’t stopped it at all.  He’d been so sure after they’d freed Kirby that the creatures couldn’t exceed that limitation.  “Let’s get out of here.  We can still outrun them.”

“All night?”  That was Saunders, giving voice to the one fear Hanley didn’t want to admit out loud—that the zombies weren’t going to stop, that they were just going to keep coming, lumbering unevenly but steadily toward them. 

Hanley said, “Let’s hope Caje or Littlejohn found somewhere we can hole up.”

Nelson led the way.  Hanley ordered him to stay at a walk.  If by any chance there wasn’t anywhere to take shelter, he wanted to conserve what strength they had left.  If it turned out they had to run, really run for it, any rest they could take now might save them later.

“Lieutenant!” Caje’s voice called.  The night was still preternaturally quiet, and Caje’s voice carried easily.  The scout came sprinting over the rise.  His dark form was lit with moonlight.  As he joined them, he continued more softly, “We found a farmhouse.  It’s intact.  There’s a lantern burning inside, the stove’s hot, but there’s no one there.”

“In hiding?” Hanley asked.

Caje shook his head.  “We searched the house top to bottom.  If they’re hiding, it’s somewhere else.  In the woods maybe.  There’s no one on the premises.”

Had the owners heard Saunders’ initial gunfire and run for cover?   That could have been why the girl had stopped singing.  Her parents could have snatched her and left.  Had they left because gunfire meant that the Germans and Americans might soon turn their farm into a battleground?  Or had they left because they knew that gunfire from the direction of the field might mean something more ominous?  Hanley would normally have found the latter idea absurd, but then, he’d seen things tonight he had never expected to see in his life. 

And if the farmers knew of the zombies and had fled from their sturdy home at the first suspicion that the creatures had awoken… that didn’t leave him any warm and cozy feelings for the continued good health of his own squad.

He debated about marching on through the night and avoiding the farm altogether.  If they could reach American lines, there would be more men, more weapons.  Tommy guns and rifles might not stop the zombies, but tanks, half-tracks, and a few bazookas would be more likely do the trick.  If they reached American lines. 

But his gut instinct told him not to keep running.  Running might very easily lead them into terrain they couldn’t get out of.  Like put their backs to a gorge or cliff.  Or smack into German-held territory.  And while the latter was suddenly not so frightening a fate—and turning the zombies loose on the Germans not necessarily a bad thing—he still wanted to avoid a prisoner of war camp if at all possible.  No, his gut told him to take shelter.  Get four solid walls around him and the squad.  Get somewhere defensible.

Defensible?  When their guns seemed next to useless?  Hanley quashed that unsettling thought.  Faced with the unknown, the need to be somewhere civilized was too overwhelming to fight.

“Lead the way,” Hanley told Caje, and gestured the men after the scout until he was left with Saunders at the back of the group. 

Saunders stood nearby, Thompson resting across his forearm, head slightly cocked and eyes squinting as he peered down the hill at the advancing zombies.  The mist was still spreading through the field beyond them.  “Lieutenant,” he said, and there was no mistaking the grimness in the sergeant’s tone.  “I think they’re carrying weapons.”

“What?!”  It was one thing to have slow-moving dead things coming after them.  It was quite another if those same zombies were armed.  The sixty feet between them and the creatures seemed suddenly unbearable close.  “Are you sure?”

Saunders pointed.  “Not all of them, but that one on the right.  He’s carrying something, and it sure looks like a rifle to me.”

“Zombies can’t fire weapons, can they?” Hanley asked. 

Saunders laughed harshly.  “Sorry, but these are my first monsters.  You want me to go ask them what they can and can’t do?”

“But they’re dead.”

“Being dead sure hasn’t stopped them from anything else,” Saunders said.

“We need a plan,” Hanley said.  “Grenades?”

“Possibly.  Problem is, we don’t have enough grenades to take out all of them.”

The zombies were lurching ever closer, and Hanley tapped Saunders on the arm.  “Let’s move.”

They broke into a jog and hurried after the rest of the squad.  It was hard to turn his back on the monsters.  Hanley kept looking over his shoulder, afraid that in the moments when wasn’t looking, they would somehow speed up and close the distance.  They didn’t.  Most of the forty or so creatures that had risen from the mud had left the field behind and were staggering unerringly after the squad.  But the squad’s fast jog was leaving them farther behind. 

The farmhouse was closer than he suspected.  A sturdy two-storied place tucked into a clearing.  Tall woods rose on three sides behind it, the forest looking impenetrably black.  The house itself was painted white and reflected the moonlight so that it almost seemed to glow.  A large barn and two outbuildings stood off to the left.  A small fenced corral utilized one wall of the barn, but he could see that the corral was as empty as Caje had reported the farmhouse to be.  No cows, no horses, not even a goat or a flock of chickens.

And the silence that had fallen since the girl had stopped singing suddenly seemed to press even more tightly around them.  Not a bird, not a cricket, not a frog broke the still air.  There was no natural noise whatsoever.  Right then he would have been happy even hearing the distant boom of artillery.  At least it would have let him know he was still in the land of the living.  Hanley swallowed and began to think running to the farmhouse was a mistake. 

But the squad was all gathered before the front door, waiting and watching, and Hanley shook off his fears and joined them.

“How many grenades you got?” Saunders was already asking.

There was a quick pocket/jacket/gear search, and the answers rolled back quickly.  “One,” “One,” “Two,” and then a whole lot of “Nones.”  “You?” Saunders looked at Hanley, and Hanley was forced to shake his head no.  Saunders’ grimace made it clear he also had none remaining.

“Four grenades, then,” Saunders said.  And he didn’t have to say anything more.  They all knew how pitifully small that quantity was against forty or so zombies.  “We’ll need to make sure every one of them counts.”

“And we need to save them as long as possible,” Hanley said.  “If we can get the zombies close together, they’ll do more good.”

“I don’t think that’s gonna be a problem.”  Caje and pointed over their shoulders.

The zombies had crested the rise, no more than two hundred yards away.  Their lurching lumbering gait was unaltered:  slow, but inexorable.   They were aiming straight for the farmhouse.  Hanley estimated they had about ten minutes before the creatures reached them. 

The lieutenant studied the farmhouse and the nearby barn.  “All right,” he said urgently.  “See if there’s anything in the barn we can use to slow them down.  Also, grab any boards, logs, wood—anything we can use to help barricade the house.  Hurry!  We don’t have much time.”

The squad scrambled away, splitting up to search for weapons or barricade material.  Littlejohn returned with a handful of pitchforks, scythes, and a few hoes.  He dropped them on the porch before returning to the hunt.  Hanley strode into the house itself to take a look around.

It was a pretty place, showing a definite woman’s touch, with the lace curtains and doilies under the vases on the mantel.  Sure enough, as Caje had reported, the kitchen stove was still hot.  On a whim, Hanley picked up another few pieces of wood, opened the door with a towel, and slid them into the firebox.  He wasn’t sure why he did it.  Maybe it was just another sign of civilization that he wanted to cling to right then.  Maybe it was the comforting warmth.  Maybe it was the thought that having a ready source of fire was a good thing.  Bullets might not stop the zombies, but maybe fire would.

And with that thought, he hurried back to the front door and gave quick orders:  “Get anything that will burn.  Pile it up over here.”

A glance down the hill showed the zombies another twenty feet closer, and he could see the main bulk of them – grey, pasty-looking things in the pale moonlight.  Their dress seemed clearer now, mostly grey Wehrmacht uniforms, but as Billy had noted, some of them definitely wore American olive drab.  And those arrowed toward First Squad as steadily and greedily as the German zombies.  Hanley watched them and shivered.

He returned to the house to finish looking around.  There were only three windows on the ground floor, two in the living room, and one in the kitchen.  “Get these windows boarded up!” Hanley called out to Saunders.  It would damage the house that had so far remained pristine, but he didn’t let himself worry about that.  Not when the alternative was to let the zombies in.

Holding one of the oil lamps, he took the stairs three at a time and explored the upstairs.  Oddly, the upstairs rooms looked untouched.  Oh sure, each bedroom was carefully decorated, each bed carefully made.  Pictures hung on the walls, and, in the one closet he glanced in, children’s clothes hung neatly inside on wooden hangers.  But the air in each room smelled musty, as if it hadn’t been stirred in awhile.  It didn’t smell bad or of death, exactly, just old, ancient, almost the way Hanley imagined an Egyptian tomb might smell.  There was a weight to those rooms that made him profoundly uncomfortable, and yet, he found himself drawn to them, peeking in each one more than once, almost expecting a little boy to jump out of hiding and yell, “Boo!”

The noise and talking below told him the squad still worked insistently below.  Hammering had started, the loud noise deliberate and precise, as someone sealed up the windows below.

Hanley felt himself drawn to the middle room, the smallest room.  It had a child-sized bed with a quilt in every shade of green imaginable.  Four tiny pillows in white cases with embroidered flowers on them were arranged by the plain wooden headboard.  This room had no framed pictures on the wall, only a large tapestry hung from a nail.  Hanley stepped forward to take a look at it, ducking his head to fit through the doorway. 

It showed a castle, with what looked like serfs tilling the soil in the foreground.  Only when he held the light closer, he saw that the ground they were working wasn’t ground at all, but a field of men.  Their mouths gaped open, their arms bent up at unnatural angles.  They looked like broken corn stocks from a distance, but when he stepped closer, Hanley could make out the details… and wished he hadn’t.  But whether the serfs were destroying the dead men with their farm tools, or planting them under the earth, he couldn’t tell.  Either way, it was disturbing.  He cast about the room almost desperately, wishing he could find the owners of this house.  Surely to keep something like this on the wall meant they knew about the dead. 

Then a chilling thought struck him.  Maybe they were the ones that caused the zombies to arise.  Weren’t zombies dead men raised by someone, with no will of their own save that of their master?  Maybe it was some Old World way of defending their land against the invaders—Nazi and American.  He recalled the voice of the girl rising in the night, and Caje telling him that her language had not been French.

“Lieutenant!” Kirby’s voice shouted for him from downstairs over the sound of hammers and furniture and wood being slammed and dragged.  “Lieutenant!”

Coming! he tried to call back, but he spun back toward the door and his voice died in his throat.

In the corner of the room, on the far side of the door, a girl sat staring at him.  She was about seven or eight, he guessed, sitting absolutely still on a painted wooden chair.  Long, dark curly hair framed her face, and her eyes were deep brown.  She wore a colorful dress.

“Hello,” Hanley said softly. 

She said nothing, just watched him.  When he stepped closer, her eyes shifted to follow him.

“I don’t mean you any harm,” he said, keeping his voice soothing and gentle.  “Are your parents around?  Brothers?  Sisters?”

When she still didn’t stir or act frightened, he moved closer.  “You don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?” he asked, quietly.  He knelt before her, which brought his head even with hers.  Carefully, still not wanting to alarm her, he reached out and touched her hand—

—and let out a surprised yell and recoiled, nearly dropping the oil lamp.  Her skin was cold and dead as an old marble stone.

“Lieutenant?” Kirby was still hollering for him, but he couldn’t move, couldn’t answer.

Slowly his heart calmed a little, and he held the lamp up again, more closely.  It was then that he saw the tree ring patterns on her forearm.  He gave a half-hysterical laugh and said aloud, “It’s a doll.  A wooden doll.”

“What?”  Kirby’s voice came from directly behind him in the doorway.

“It’s a doll,” Hanley said.  He leaned forward, holding the lamp up closer to her.  The craftsmanship that had gone into making her was exquisite, every detail on her seemed lifelike.  Her lips looked like they could open and start talking to him.  The blush of her cheeks seemed more than paint, as if colored by the real flush of warmth.

“Her eyes are creepy,” Kirby said.  “They’re watching me.”

“It’s the way they’re painted,” Hanley said.  He touched her hair, tentatively, but quickly backed off.  It felt like real hair to him.

“Lieutenant,” Kirby said.  “Those zombies are closing in.  We need you downstairs.”

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Hanley said and stood up.  Her eyes followed him.  He was about to follow Kirby, then couldn’t resist reaching out and touching her shoulder again, as if to reassure himself she really was only a cleverly carved and articulated piece of wood.  She slumped forward suddenly off the chair, and both he and Kirby let out startled noises as she clattered to the floor.

Kirby exhaled sharply.  “Zombies aren’t bad enough?  You trying to scare me to death too?”

“Go on downstairs,” Hanley said.  “I’m right behind you.”

Kirby went, not lingering.  But Hanley found he couldn’t leave the doll lying like that, looking all broken and… dead.  He picked her up, surprised at the weight, and set her back in the chair.  He thought her unblinking doll’s gaze at him seemed a bit recriminating.  His hand brushed something on her side.  He turned her slightly, brought the lamp close, and found a small metal crank handle protruding from her side.  He puzzled over that.  It was like something a child would turn to make a favorite toy talk.  He fingered it a moment, wondering what a handmade toy like this would say.  Her eyes seemed to bore right into him, urging him to give it a spin, and he wanted to.  That look of hers and his own curiosity tugged at him, but he knew from the volume of noise downstairs, and the now frantic hammering, that he was out of time.  The mystery of the doll would have to wait.  He forced himself to turn away from her watchful dark eyes.  It was harder than he would have thought.

Downstairs, the squad had fortified the interior and were finishing the job on the window closest to the door with some extra planks.  A stack of boards sat just inside the front door, and Hanley knew that would be to seal off the door if their stand outside failed and they had to retreat inside.  He wondered if it would hold.

He stepped out onto the porch and saw that in his absence, Saunders had had the men pile the wood in a semi-circle before the front of the house.  Lewis was pouring tractor gasoline onto it.  The first of the zombies were less than thirty feet away.  Kirby was standing ready with his B.A.R.

One of the walking dead raised a rifle to his shoulder, and a flat crack echoed around the field.  Lewis screamed and pitched backwards.  The gasoline can fell from his hands, the remainder spilling across the dirt.  Doc dropped by his side.

As if that had opened the floodgates, the other zombie soldiers who had weapons began to raise them.  A round of bullets flew past, but missed.

“In the house!” Saunders called.  “Come on, move it.”  The squad retreated, more bullets slamming into the house behind them.

“I need a hand!” Doc called, and Nelson hurriedly slung his own rifle and helped Doc pick up the wounded man, who was moaning loudly.

Saunders dropped into a crouch behind the pile of wood, making himself a low profile.

Hanley hissed, “Saunders, come on,” but Saunders waited.  The creatures came straight ahead, undeviating in their apparent need to follow the shortest distance to their prey.  They were grunting loudly now, their mouths moving as if they were speaking, but nothing but groans and grunts came out.  Saunders waited until the zombies were less than five feet from the gasoline-soaked pile of wood before he flicked the wheel on his lighter, lit a twisted scrap of paper, and tossed that onto the pile.  The gasoline roared to life with a loud whoosh, and Saunders used that distraction to jump onto the porch. 

Nelson had gone upstairs to keep watch on what was going on from the vantage of one of the upstairs front bedrooms.  It wasn’t the room with the doll, that faced the backside of the house, and Hanley didn’t know why that thought relieved him.  It just felt like she needed to be left undisturbed.

Saunders held the squad’s four remaining grenades, waiting to see what the fire would do.  The flames shot ten, fifteen feet in the air, mostly from the initial ignition of the gasoline fumes.

“They’re stopped at the fire!” Billy called down.

The men behind them were ready to barricade the front door as soon as the two officers retreated inside.

“They’re not going around,” Billy called down.  “They just keep coming straight ahead into the fire.”

Then, with a splintery crash, the curve of burning wood burst open in the middle.  Embers and bits of flaming wood flew around, and Hanley and Saunders both jumped back.  Through the hole, a burning zombie pushed right through.  His uniform was ablaze, nearly disintegrated.

But he kept coming.  And behind him more zombies followed through the break, catching fire as they pushed forward, but uncaring.

“Kirby!” Hanley called, and the private stepped forward and emptied a magazine into the flaming creature in the lead.  This time, the bullets, coupled with the burning, were enough to knock it over on its back.  When it tried to lift its arms and sit up again, it failed and slumped back to the ground. But right behind it, more were coming, the break in the barricade opening wider with each passing zombie. 

“Saunders…” Hanley said.

Saunders pulled a grenade from his pocket, pulled the pin, counted five, and tossed it on the other side of the burning barricade, right in the midst of the zombies funneling toward the opening.  He and Hanley flung themselves inside the house as the grenade exploded, ripping several zombies to shreds, but also damaging the wall of fire.  Several of the burning slats of wood tumbled down.  A couple zombies struggled back to their feet minus various bits of their body.  Hanley grimaced.  One had had its legs blown off, and it was now dragging itself by its hands through the grass.

“They just won’t stop,” Hanley muttered.

Saunders threw another grenade, right into a cluster.  “Last two?” he asked.

Hanley nodded.  “Better to reduce their ranks now.”

Saunders heaved the last two grenades at the most clustered areas of zombies.  Hanley had seen Fantasia when it had come out in 1940, and he thought blowing zombies up was about as effective as Mickey chopping up that bewitched broom with an ax.  All it succeeded in doing was making more zombies.  Although at least the zombies stayed in pieces—animated pieces, to be sure, but still pieces.

The nearest zombies lurched straight at them.  Saunders fired a burst from his Thompson directly at the chest of the closest one, and it fell backwards, giving him and Hanley time to get inside the house.  “Seal it up!” Saunders ordered, and the waiting men quickly locked and barred the door, then started hammering two-by-fours and planks across the doorway.

Hanley hurried over to the living room, where Doc was trying to treat Lewis.   He was having trouble just holding the gibbering, moaning man still long enough to take a look at the wound.   Hanley dropped down beside them and helped hold the soldier steady.  “Doc?” Hanley asked.

“Just hold him still a moment,” Doc said grimly, and Hanley did as asked, though more than anything he wished he could just get the wounded man to shut up.  He could hardly hear anything over Lewis’s cries. 

A booming thud came from the front door.  Hanley looked up and caught Saunders’ eye.  Saunders was tossing an empty clip away and reloading.  A second thud, and then a third, and then concerted pounding.

Saunders gestured to Kirby and Caje.  “Check the kitchen and back.  Make sure they aren’t trying to get in anywhere else.”

Doc grabbed Lewis’s shirt and tore it open.  Hanley was still having a devil of a time keeping the wounded man from writhing back and forth.  He heard the first sound of splintering wood—the front door giving way.  And right after it, the shatter of glass when one of the front two windows broke inward.  Nelson came running down the stairs to join them, rifle tightly gripped.

Hanley looked back at the wounded man and saw that Doc had sank back on his heels, was just sitting there with a stunned look on his face.  “Doc—”

Doc said nothing, just pointed at the wound in Lewis’s shoulder.  Hanley couldn’t help flinching back slightly, as Doc had done.  The skin around the bullet hole was grey, and the grey was spreading like vines across the wounded man’s chest.

“What the—” Hanley said.  He dropped the man’s arm, but Lewis immediately thrashed around again, and Hanley had to tighten his grip.

Doc’s eyes were wide.  “That bullet he took…”

A zombie bullet, Hanley finished the thought with a chill.  “It isn’t…”  Hanley didn’t even know how to voice the sudden fear he had.

Doc just shook his head.  “That wound isn’t natural, Lieutenant.”

More wood splintered from the front door and an arm quested in, the dead grey fingers clawing the air.  Hanley looked at it, then looked at the color of the grey taking over Lewis.  “He’s turning into a zombie,” he said.  And then he realized what that really meant.  That they’d have one of those unstoppable creatures right there in the house with them.

“Doc,” he said urgently.  “Can you do anything for him?  Anything to slow this down?”

 The dead grey flesh had crept all the way to Lewis’s neck, to encircle his throat like an evil scarf.  The private started coughing and choking, gasping for air, his wails of pain suddenly strangled.  He clawed at his throat, at his own flesh.  Abruptly, he let out a last exhale.  Hanley let go of the man’s arm and glanced at his own hands uneasily.  He hadn’t touched the man’s actual flesh, but fear of the zombieness infecting him gave him the willies.  One glance at Doc showed the medic staring at his own hands as well, suddenly not keen to touch anything else himself.

Both men stared down at Lewis.  The dead flesh was still spreading, his jaw turning creepy grey, like he’d grown some macabre beard.  Doc and Hanley jumped to their feet and backed up.  “Saunders!” Hanley called.  “We’ve got to get Lewis’s body out of here.  Now!”

“How?” Kirby demanded.  “We’re sealed in!”

As if to show the lie of that, one of the boards covering a front window shattered in two and another hand reached inside.  The thudding at the front door had, if anything, increased in power.

“That wood’s not going to hold long,” Littlejohn said. 

“The upstairs windows aren’t boarded,” Nelson offered.  “We could…”

Hanley glanced at Doc, neither one of them wanting to touch the body again, but realizing if they didn’t do something fast, they were going to be in even worse trouble.  Lewis’s head was completely grey, and tendrils of deadness crept down his right hand, taking over his fingers.  “Let’s go,” Hanley said. 

Lewis’s eyes flicked suddenly toward Hanley, and he grunted some monosyllabic sounds and sat up.

“Now!”  Hanley yelled, and grabbed the dead man under the arms while Doc grabbed the legs.  They ran up the stairway, Doc leading.  At the same time, the newly-created zombie snaked out a hand to rake at Hanley’s jacket.  Hanley shuddered and moved even faster.  The dead flesh was clearly extending down each leg as the dead weight they had been carried suddenly came alive and started kicking.  It was nearly enough to upset their balance and tumble them down the stairway. 

Behind them, Hanley could hear wood breaking as the zombies broke through the boards barricading the door.  He heard the squad shouting, and someone calling for one of the pitchforks.  He had a glimpse of Littlejohn stabbing through one of the openings in the window and saw a zombie and the pitchfork vanish backwards out of sight.  Then Lewis clawed at him again.  Hanley clenched his fingers deep into Lewis’s jacket and hurried faster, careful not to trip on the last step.  Doc pushed with his back at a doorway, but when Hanley realized which room it was, he said suddenly, “No, not that room.”  Somehow he couldn’t quite bear to disturb the room with the lifelike doll.

Doc swung across the hallway and crashed open the door to one of the other small bedrooms.  The Lewis zombie was struggling, and it was all they could do to hang onto him as they maneuvered him into the bedroom. 

A burst of Thompson gunfire came from downstairs.  

“Quick!” Hanley said.  He and Doc swung Lewis’s body toward the window over the bed.  The glass shattered loudly, and the zombie pitched out the broken window.  Both men leaned forward to look outside.  What they saw was a mass of dead men surging at the house.  Lewis landed among them and slowly climbed to his feet and joined the others assaulting the house.

“Lieutenant?” Doc said.  “We’re not going to be able to stop them, are we?”

For a moment, Hanley said nothing.  He wanted to deny it, but he couldn’t.  The truth was, they had been short on ammunition before retreating here, and they would run out long before they could reduce the remaining zombies to unthreatening pieces. He recognized now that they should not have holed up in the house.  They should have kept running, no matter how tired they were.  One could not make a stand against the undead. 

Then he stopped, recalling the tapestry hanging in the room with the doll.  Maybe it had only been his morbid worry that had thought the scene depicted the serfs sowing the dead bodies.  Maybe they had been defeating them and were burying the threat.  And if so, those serfs had had nothing more than garden implements to do it.  No guns.  And they’d done it.  Somehow, they’d done it.

“Doc,” Hanley said suddenly.  “Get downstairs and find out if we can get out the back of the house or if those things have us surrounded.  And bring me back a lamp, will you?”

Doc looked vaguely puzzled, but nodded and ran downstairs.  Hanley crossed the hall to the middle bedroom and hesitated a moment on the threshold.  He wiped his palms against his pant legs slowly, forcing his hand to close around the knob and twist.  He swung the door open gently, not wanting to bump the doll that he knew would be sitting just inside.

He left the door wide open to let as much of the downstairs light into the room as possible and stepped up to the bed where he could study the tapestry again.  While he waited for Doc to return with a lamp, he pulled out his lighter and flicked it on.  His eyes roved over the tapestry again, starting with the field of zombies.  The serfs stood atop them, some with farm implements raised as if to strike, some with their hoes buried in the dead bodies.  He leaned closer, trying to make out the expressions on their faces.

“Lieutenant?”  It was Doc, back with the light.

“Bring it here.”  Hanley snatched it from the medic and pocketed his lighter.  He raised the lamp’s wick, the flame growing dangerously high with it.  “What’s the report?”

“We can still get out the back.  Caje is guarding the kitchen door.  So far, the zombies are still attacking the front.  And making pretty good headway too.”

Hanley nodded, almost absently, and raised the lamp up to the tapestry.  “Look at this, Doc.  Tell me what you see.”

Doc leaned closer.  “Castle, bunch of farmers… oh.”  He stopped suddenly as he got a good look at what lay in the farmers’ field.

“Yeah,” Hanley said.  With the lamp held high, he traced the threads in the tapestry, letting his finger guide him through patterns that made up zombies, people, hoes and pitchforks.  Then he spotted what must have been a noble on the back of a white charger in the background, near the castle’s drawbridge.  His finger traced the gold-threaded crown or hat… it was too small for him to tell which.  But the very fact the figure sat on a horse told him the figure was an aristocrat.  Did it mean anything?  More unusual, the figure was not facing the fight with the zombies, but was staring instead up at the battlements of the castle.

“What are you looking for?” Doc asked.

“I don’t know, Doc,” Hanley snapped.  Time was running short, but he knew the answer was in the tapestry somehow.  It had to be.

There was a sudden, loud cracking noise, and Hanley could abruptly hear the grunts of the zombies loud and clear.  “Doc,” he said urgently, “find out what’s going on.”

“Don’t you think you should—”

“No!” Hanley said.  “The answer’s here.”

Hanley let his finger trace past the noble to the stones of the castle.  Not a fairy tale-style castle. This one seemed blockier, more functional and less ornate, without any corner spire-topped guard towers.  In the crenellations of the battlements, armored soldiers stood watching from on high.  Interesting, Hanley thought, that the soldiers waited behind their stone walls, while the serfs did the dirty work.

Gunfire came in earnest from down below, and he heard the yells and noises of the attack on the zombies.  He heard it, and he forced himself to tune it out, trusting Saunders to buy him a little more time.

Then, he realized the tapestry’s soldiers weren’t looking at the battle any more than the noble was.  Each one faced the middle of the battlements.  As he studied the tapestry more closely, something out of place jumped out at him.  A tiny figure, dwarfed by the size of the soldiers, stood alone in one crenellation directly in the middle.  A small, colorfully dressed figure, who looked for all the world like the life-like doll sitting in the chair behind him.  He squinted to get a closer look, trying to brighten the lamp even more, but couldn’t make out much more.  It definitely looked like a little girl, mouth open in a rounded O, stood amid the soldiers who watched out over the fields.  He didn’t know how he had missed her on his first glance, as suddenly, now that he had spotted her, she was clearly the focus of both the nobleman and the other soldiers.  They all looked to her.

Footsteps pounded up the stairway, and Doc burst back through the doorway.  ”The zombies broke down the front door!” he said.  “They’re in the house.  We need every man downstairs!”

“Go,” Hanley said, never taking his eyes from the figures in the tapestry.  “Tell Saunders to retreat out the back if he has to.”

Doc hesitated.  “What about you, sir?”

“Just tell him!”

He heard Doc leaving and almost sighed in relief.  He couldn’t focus when the medic was there.  He could always jump out the window if it came to that.  It was on the backside of the house and should land him clear of the zombies.  If he didn’t break a leg.

He studied the tiny dark-haired figure sewn into the tapestry, then turned and looked at the wooden doll.  Her big dark eyes already watched him, with that uncanny look that seemed so alive.  She sat in the chair, hands in her lap, just the way he had left her after straightening her back on the chair.  He carried the lamp over to her side.

“Why would they all look to you in that tapestry if you didn’t hold the key?” he asked softly. 

Footsteps started up the stairway again.  Not one of the squad member’s footsteps, Hanley knew that instantly.  This was a heavy plodding shamble.  One of the zombies was coming.

“Are you the answer?” Hanley asked.  The dark unfathomable eyes watched him, almost encouragingly, Hanley thought, those painted, carved lips seemed curled in the start of a smile.  “You aren’t old enough to have been around when that tapestry was made,” he murmured.  “They didn’t make dolls like you back in the Middle Ages.”  Though he wasn’t entirely sure if that were true or not.  His fingers brushed the small metal crank protruding from her side.  “Particularly not with records inside of them.”

Grunting came from outside the door, and that broke the spell.  The reality of what was going on crashed back into Hanley’s consciousness and he leaped to his feet and slammed the bedroom door shut, heart thumping.  All his introspection on an ancient tapestry and a doll seemed wasted, and he realized just how much danger he had put himself in.  He wondered if Saunders had gotten the squad out the back of the house.  The zombie smacked the bedroom door, and Hanley started toward the bedroom window.

The doll’s eyes followed him, and he forced himself to pause.  He suddenly remembered the girl’s voice that had been singing when they’d first approached the field.  The happy voice in a melancholy, misty night.

A zombie fist crashed through the door.  Hanley skirted the bed and returned to the doll’s side.  He turned the delicate handle at her side, one, two, three full turns.  Her mouth slowly opened, and he kept turning the handle, until on the sixth full turn, her voice poured out.  She picked up her cheerful melody where she’d left off.  It was too loud for some tiny phonograph embedded within the doll, and the notes filled the room, filled the house, moving beyond it.  It was beautiful, the tune moving through him like it had the house until he was one with her, the music, the world.  He embraced the sound of it but, at the same time, he wanted to throw his hands over his ears and stop it somehow.  But he couldn’t, not and keep cranking the tiny handle, keep the music flowing.

The zombie arm withdrew from the damaged door and pulled out of sight.  Hanley didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he heard the clomping back down the stairway and realized the zombie was retreating.  He slumped down into a sitting position beside the doll’s chair, and slowly and steadily kept turning the handle, letting her song flow out.  He didn’t understand it, and he didn’t care.  Her interrupted song was going again, and that was all that mattered.

Saunders found him shortly thereafter.  The sergeant’s jacket was torn, but he looked okay.  Hanley watched him look around the tiny bedroom before he knelt besides Hanley, his gaze settling on the doll.

“Quite something, isn’t she?” Hanley murmured.

“What is she?” Saunders asked.

Hanley shook his head.  “I have no idea.  The zombies?”

“They’re returning to the field.  Caje and Kirby are keeping an eye on them, making sure they really do go back where they belong.”  Saunders paused a moment, then said, “Lewis is with them.”

Hanley nodded.  He felt ineffably tired, unable to move from where he sat against the wall, knees drawn up, one arm outstretched to the doll’s side where he kept the handle slowly turning.  He felt drained of all energy, as if every note the doll produced came out of him.  And yet he couldn’t stop, was afraid to stop, even as a new fear built in him, a fear that he’d never be able to let go of that handle that now tied him to the doll.

“Hanley?  Hanley?” 

He realized it was Saunders’ voice calling him from an incredibly far distance.  He felt a hand shake his shoulder, but he could no longer respond.  His entire existence seemed caught up in the doll’s singing.  He was passing out, he thought.  So tired.  He just needed to rest awhile. 

“She says not to let him fall asleep,” Caje said.

The scout’s voice seemed perfectly clear.  But that was all Hanley wanted, to sleep.  Sleep forever and ever…  And besides, he felt a flash of irritation, why was the doll talking to Caje anyway?  It was Hanley who had figured things out and reanimated her… why wasn’t she talking to him?

The hand shook his shoulder again. “Lieutenant, open your eyes,” Saunders said.

Hanley tried to bat him away, but he didn’t even have the energy to do that.

“She says you must wake him now or he will be lost.”

Caje again. What gave him the right to give orders anyway? Hanley thought, though this time the scout’s voice wasn’t clear.  It was rather fuzzy and lost in the mist.  Mist like the fog creeping out of the woods earlier.  There was suddenly a lot of fog, Hanley thought.  Where had it come from?  It was all around him, sucking him down down down, and that was okay.  The doll’s voice was all around him here, through him, part of him, as if he were the one singing now, not her.

The slap across his face jerked him out of it, and he jumped, whacking his head against the wall behind him.  His eyes flew open and he stared around the room, trying to bring objects back into clarity.  “Wha…” he tried to say.

“Stay with me, Lieutenant.  Look at me—no!  Don’t close your eyes again.”

Hanley turned his head—it seemed to take forever to make that quarter turn – and, slowly, Saunders’ face swam into focus. 

“You have to let go of the doll,” Saunders said.  “We can’t do it for you.  You have to break the link yourself.  Do you understand?  She says to let go.  Open your hand and let go.”

There was that she says again.  The doll talking to everyone but him… maybe he should let go.  It hurt that she still wasn’t talking to him after all he’d done for her.

“That’s it,” Saunders said.  “Come on, let go, Hanley.”

He could see Saunders more clearly now, crouched in front of him, watching him intently, seriously, concerned.  That concern was for him, he knew.  Then he remembered he couldn’t let go.  He had to keep turning the voice box handle, keep the music flowing, the melody that was flowing all around him, those nonsense-sounding syllables, some language he couldn’t identify.  It was the girl’s song that kept the zombies away.  He tried to tell Saunders that, but all he could get out was, “Zombies…”

“They’re gone.  All of them,” Saunders said.  “You can stop.  Let go.  Hanley, you have to let go.”

He couldn’t.  The song was too seductive.  He couldn’t bear for it to stop.  And then he understood, that it was consuming him, or the doll was… they were one and the same, the voice and the wooden girl before him.  “Help…” he tried to say.

“Let go!” Saunders said.

Hanley could feel himself slipping, Saunders was going out of focus, disappearing back into the mist. 

The second slap was much harder than the first, and the pain of it startled Hanley back out of the void.  “Damn it, Saunders!” he snarled, angry now, ready to strike back at the sergeant—and he let go of the handle.

The song vanished mid-note, and Hanley cried out.  He threw his hands over his ears and curled forward, trying to hide from the sudden silence.  It was just the absence of sound, but the physical sensation as the song was ripped out of his own body, mind, and soul… the sudden and overwhelming loneliness of life without the voice curling around him… and he was left free and just himself again.  He slumped sideways, and Saunders caught him and lowered him to lie on the wood floor.

“She says he needs to sleep now,” Caje said, and this time Caje heard the other voice speaking in French, the one Caje was translating.  A woman’s voice, not a girl’s, with the rasp and quaver of age to it.  He forced his eyes to open again and saw an old woman standing next to Caje.

“What happened?” he asked.  “Who is she?”

“She lives here,” Saunders answered.  “She’s one of the Keepers.”

Hanley heard it with a capital K.  A title, an occupation.  Hanley struggled to sit up again, to back himself as far away from the doll as possible.  It was watching him sadly with its dark eyes.  “What is that thing?” he whispered.

“It’s just a tool,” Caje said.  “A dangerous, powerful tool.  The old lady says you’re lucky to be alive.  They only allow women to use it as they’re less susceptible to its spell.  The locals use it to control the revenants.”

“The what?”

“The zombies,” Caje answered.  “The reanimated dead.  She says the dead have no will of their own, only that of the one who controls them.  The voice of the doll keeps them happy, sleeping, drowning out other thoughts that might wake them.  If the doll stops, they respond to the thoughts of those nearest, feeding on their fear.  In this case… us.”

“So we woke them from the field when the song stopped?”

Oui,” came the soft answer. 

Anger flickered through Hanley.  “Why’d she let the song stop then?  We were nearly killed.” 

“She was called away,” Caje answered.  “She didn’t know anyone was around.  She came back as soon as she realized what was going on.  She says her job has gotten harder since the war.  There are a lot more dead to keep dead.”

“Everybody else okay?”

“All except Lewis.”

Hanley nodded, wanting to be sad for Lewis’s death, but only feeling his own loss, of having belonged to the doll’s voice, and having lost that forever.  Exhaustion settled over him.  He closed his eyes again, and this time no one yelled at him.

“Let’s get him to one of the other rooms,” Saunders said.  “I don’t want him in here with that thing.”

Hanley felt himself being lifted, and he heard the old woman say something in French.  Caje translated, “Lieutenant, she says to tell you that sleep will help you forget.”

Hanley opened his eyes and met her gaze, saw the look of sympathy and understanding on the old woman’s face.  He nodded at her in acknowledgement, hoping she was right. 

end

 

Return Home

Grab another clip