The December Second Selected Writer is Ken Courtenay
Please feel free to email Ken at: email@example.com
LAST STOP BEFORE HOME
As she leaned against her car listening to the rhythm of the convenience store gas pump, an exhausted Maddie Collins cursed quietly to herself. It was nine-thirty on a Friday night and she was only now making her way home. And it had been a shitty day to boot.
As a single, twenty-nine year-old living in the northern outskirts of Odessa, Texas, Maddie had a frantic work schedule that included working long days, nights and often weekends. Some would call her a workaholic and she probably would not have argued the point.
Once her car was filled, Maddie started to get in and drive home when, on the spur of the moment, she decided she wanted a candy bar. It would be her little reward for getting through a bad day.
Walking through the parking lot, the cool night air felt refreshing against her skin. Under the full moon, she saw several cars, one a police car, parked outside. As she walked towards the store entrance, she silently chastised herself for spending too much time at work and not making more time for herself. She decided then and there that this weekend she would do something fun.
Breezing through the automatic doors of the convenience store, she noticed an acrid, metallic smell. She didn’t recognize the unfamiliar odor, but it instinctively made her hesitate. She turned towards the counter but the store clerk was nowhere to be seen. He must be in the back stocking shelves, she thought to herself.
Something made her want to hurry. She went straight to the shelf of candy bars and quickly grabbed her favorite, a Milky Way. As she turned to go back to the counter, she stopped dead in her tracks. She was gripped by panic and heard nothing except the roar of her heartbeat in her ears. At that moment, everything in her world slowed and time came a virtual crawl.
A woman was lying in the aisle next to the soft drink cooler. Her legs splayed out and the items she had been carrying were scattered about her on the floor. Bright red blood stained her white blouse and as the blood oozed from a gaping wound, the crimson stain continued to grow.
In shock, Maddie turned her head and saw a policeman lying on his side in the next aisle. A nasty chest wound stained his uniform shirt. Around him, bags of potato chips and jars of salsa had fallen haphazardly to the floor.
I’m getting the hell out of here, she thought to herself, and turned to run out of the store. That’s when she saw three strangers, standing back behind some shelves on the other side of the door she had entered. There were two women, one blonde and one redhead, and a sandy-haired man. They all were young, wearing shabby clothes...and alive. Maddie could feel their wild eyes bore in to her as she saw that each had a gun and wore a homicidal grin. The three strangers raised their guns. Maddie’s heart pounded in her chest as she desperately realized she was trapped with nowhere to run.
In a sudden blur, another young man dashed out from behind the store counter where he had been hiding. As he sprang towards her, Maddie let out a startled scream and her hands flew back, knocking one of the cardboard displays to the floor with a loud crash. He grabbed Maddie by the arm, and pulled her with him towards the store counter, firing his gun with his other hand at the three strangers. As Maddie rounded the corner of the store counter, the young man pushed her to the floor behind the counter and then dived on top of her, covering her.
A flurry of explosions raged throughout the store as the three strangers opened fire. Cans of soup, bags of potato chips, candy bars and cookies danced on the shelves and burst open as the bullets hit them. Lights popped and exploded above. Maddie heard shouting, yelling and screaming mixed in with the roar of the gunfire. She realized the shouting and yelling was coming from the three strangers. The screams were her own.
After another moment, the firing stopped. As the echoes from the gun volley died down, Maddie heard hysterical laughter coming from the other side of the store. It was uncontrollable, gut-wrenching laughter as though the three strangers had shared a sick joke.
Lying on the floor, Maddie tried to push the young man off her. As she reached out an arm to balance herself she touched something wet and sticky. Looking over, she realized that the clerk had never been in the back room stocking the shelves after all. He was lying on the floor, blood staining his chest.
The young man lifted himself off her and sat on the floor, his back against the counter. Keeping her head down, Maddie was finally able to sit up as well. She pressed hard against the side of counter, putting as much distance between her and the body on the floor. Even though her arms were wrapped around her knees, she was shaking all over. She felt sick.
“Please,” she pleaded in a trembling whisper, “don’t let them kill me.”
“I won’t,” the young man whispered back as he reloaded his gun and prepared for the next assault.
“My God! Those people are crazy!” she whispered to herself excitedly. She realized she was having trouble breathing. As she tried to catch her breath she started to hyperventilate. The room around her started to spin. Her panic began to rise to a new level. She could hear the three strangers as they moved within the store, joking loudly to each other, sweeping items from the store shelves and sending them crashing to the floor.
“Calm down. Clam down!” the young man hissed in an urgent whisper. He roughly took hold of her and shook her until her eyes met his. “We’ve got to keep our wits if we’re going to get through this.”
Maddie did as she was told and tried to slow her breathing. She closed her eyes, partly to concentrate on her breathing but mostly in hopes that she would open them and awaken from this horrible dream. After a few moments she finally opened her eyes. She was still in her nightmare and the young man was still there, loading his gun.
“What's your name?” he whispered over his shoulder as he tried to peer around the side of the counter.
“M-M-Maddie,” she stammered, trying to keep her breathing even.
Suddenly a loud crash of shattering glass exploded over by the soft drink cooler. Bottles of water, beer and orange juice could be heard crashing to the floor. She heard a shelf being ripped out of one of the coolers. It was thrown across the store and hit against the store counter, causing Maddie to jump at the loud whack. She ducked her head underneath her arm, and a fearful groan escaped her. She was so afraid she wasn't aware she had made any sound.
Oh God help me, Maddie thought to herself. She pulled her head back up and viewed her rescuer. For the first time, she noticed what he looked like. She saw that he was a young man, maybe twenty-five. He wore jeans and a grey shirt with the name “Jonsey” stitched over the left-hand pocket.
Then Maddie noticed something else. “Oh my God, you’ve been shot!” she cried. His left thigh was bleeding, blood pooling on the floor. His jeans were ripped and bloodstained where the grazing bullet had passed.
“The bullet only nicked my leg,” he whispered quietly, breathing heavily from their short run. He brushed his dark hair out of his eyes and wiped the blood away.
Maddie quickly checked herself and was relieved to find she had not been shot. She looked around for another door, a small window, anything that they could escape through, but there was no other way out except through the door she had come through.
From the rumble and noise, it sounded like the three strangers had moved to the other side of the store, but Maddie couldn’t be sure. She heard what sounded like the fountain drink dispenser being toppled to the floor with a loud crash. Then a mirror, or maybe a window, was smashed near the back of the store, the broken shards breaking again as they hit the floor.
“What do they want?” Maddie asked, trying to ignore the chills she was experiencing and the now familiar metallic smell of exploded gunpowder filling her nostrils.
“Blood,” Jonesy replied simply. “They want everyone’s blood on their hands,” he said as he clicked the revolver shut. The gun seemed small and useless in his large hands.
“Why?” Maddie exclaimed. “What did we do to them?” Then, a hopeful idea struck her. “Did the policeman arrive because of an alarm? Is help on the way?”
“No,” Jonesy sighed. “He was already here picking up a few things when the bullets started flying. I was standing next to him when he got shot.”
“Oh my God,” Maddie cried to herself. “How are we going to get away from these monsters?”
Just then another loud explosion of gunfire filled the store. Maddie screamed and covered her head as Jonesy curled into a ball, tucking his knees and elbows together. Packets of cigarettes, batteries, disposable cameras and other items kept on the upper shelves behind the counter bounced off as the bullets hit and ricocheted. The items showered down on the two huddled forms behind the counter. After a few moments the gunfire finally ceased. More laughter could be heard from the other side of the store. The laughter was beginning to sound insane.
“Oh my God, are you hurt?” Maddie asked in a frantic whisper, praying she would not be left to face these people alone.
Before Jonesy could answer, a loud, deep voice boomed in the store. “Come on out from behind the counter! We don’t want to be here all night and we don’t want to have to come drag you out. I promise we’ll end it quickly for you.” One of the women sang “Come out, come out, where ever you are” which set both women giggling...Death laughing at Life.
Maddie’s heart pounded. Her hands began to shake violently. That voice, those giggles, just didn’t seem real. She had to be in some kind of nightmare, some kind of bizarre dream. None of this made any sense or fit any reality she knew.
Then everything became eerily quiet. Maddie listened intently. The only sound she could hear was the pounding of her own heart, the shallowness of her own breathing. The rest of the world could be as dead as those poor people out there, Maddie thought, and it wouldn’t be this quiet.
“What do you think they’re going to do?” Maddie anxiously whispered. “Can’t they just leave?”
“I don’t think they will,” Jonesy replied quietly.
“Oh God,” Maddie whimpered. Why did she have to come in to this store on this night, she asked herself?
Just then, a movement caught Maddie’s eye. She clasped Jonesy’s arm tightly, her wide eyes focused on the floor at the end of the counter. As Jonesy turned his head to look, a hand, a man’s hand, reached slowly around the corner and gripped the right ankle of the store clerk lying on the floor. Slowly, the body was dragged from behind the counter, a red trail of blood following.
As the store clerk’s body began to slide along the floor, a low, raspy moan escaped from his lungs. His left arm rose up in a feeble attempt to grip one of the shelves to try and stop his movement. But he was too weak.
“Oh my God, he’s still alive!” Maddie exclaimed, tightening her grip on Jonesy’s arm, still not believing her eyes. “He’s not dead! He’s still alive!”
“Yes Maddie,” Jonesy agreed calmly, “everyone is still alive...for the moment.”
Confused, Maddie was trying to process what she had just heard Jonesy say when her eyes fell on his wounded leg. Amazingly, it was almost completely healed. There was only a light scar where just a few minutes ago there had been a gash left by the bullet that had grazed his thigh. How is that possible, she asked herself?
Then Jonesy did something completely unexpected. He stood up. Maddie tried to grab his arm and pull him back down, but he shook her loose. Then he reached down, took Maddie’s arm in his grasp and stood her up as well.
“No!” she shrieked as she was brought to her feet. She had her eyes tightly closed. She didn’t want to see death coming, especially the violent death she expected she was about to meet. But there were no shots fired, no ear shattering explosions, no bullets ripping through her flesh.
“Open your eyes, Maddie. Behold what is before you,” Jonesy said in a strangely excited, guttural voice that shook Maddie to her core.
Opening her eyes, she could not fathom the terrible scene in front of her. She was at once dizzy, yet she saw every detail. She was numb with fear, yet she felt every chill.
One of the young women, the redhead, was on her knees, leaning over the wounded lady on the floor by the soft drink cooler. The lady on the floor was slowly moving her legs as if trying to get traction, to stand and flee. But the redhead held her down, her mouth attached to the chest wound, sucking the blood while the lady’s still beating heart slowly pumped.
A soft moan reached Maddie’s ears from the two women, but she couldn’t tell if it was a moan of desperate pain or excited pleasure. Did it come from the giver of blood or the taker?
Turning from the horrible sight, Maddie then saw that the young blonde woman was doing the same to the policeman in the other aisle. The policeman was slowly moving his right arm, trying to push her away. But he was too weak, his movements lethargic. As the blonde took more blood from his chest wound, she became stronger.
Maddie then turned and saw that the sandy-haired man was straddling the store clerk he had dragged out from behind the counter. With both hands he pushed up on the store clerk’s torso causing more blood to stream out of the chest wound. Placing his mouth on the flowing wound, he drank greedily.
Maddie saw the clerk’s mouth was open in a silent cry for help. His eyes, focused on her, were pleading to her. Terrified, Maddie watched as his eyes began to lose their awareness. She watched as they became vacant, the life force having been taken, the soul having fled.
Lastly, she looked at Jonesy. He had been watching her as she took in the entire scene. The small smile on his handsome face was muted by a sadness in his eyes. His expression told Maddie that he knew what was happening, and that he was a bigger part of the slaughter than she had ever suspected.
Maddie turned and ran.
With two steps she reached the corner of the store counter. As she rounded the corner of the counter the sandy-haired man looked up from his feeding. Blood covered his mouth. Crimson dripped from his lips and spattered on to the dead store clerk’s shirt.
Maddie managed to take three more steps towards the door before Jonesy was over the counter and in front of her. She ran right into his powerful arms. She began to struggle in his grasp but he would not let go. Kicking, hitting, screaming, had no effect. He held her tightly.
She began having trouble breathing again and her struggle against his grip became weaker. Finally, she couldn’t struggle any longer. Defeated, tears formed in her eyes. Her knees felt weak. Jonesy held her close until her struggling subsided. Then he looked down to her face as she looked up into his dark eyes.
“Why?” Maddie asked in barely a whisper.
“It’s what we do. It’s what we are,” Jonesy said simply. “We live at night, we feed on humans, we sleep during the day.” He paused for a moment, and then said, “Besides, from my experience, Life is wasted on the Living. Always frantically running around. Never seeing all that is around you...the beauty, the simplicity.” Looking at him, Maddie saw, for the first time, contempt in his dark eyes. As he released his hold on her, Maddie felt faint. She grabbed the counter to steady herself and to keep from falling over.
“This little gun battle you’ve witnessed,” he continued, gesturing with his gun, “we do this to entertain ourselves. We can’t really hurt each other.”
He saw the confusion in Maddie’s eyes. The disbelief, the dawning horror.
“You said you were beside the policeman when he was shot,” Maddie said slowly, more to herself than to anyone else. “You shot the policeman?”
“We have found,” Jonesy said, nodding in confirmation, “that inflicting a gunshot wound to the right side of the chest collapses the lung and incapacitates the...‘prey?’ Then we take the blood through the wound while the heart beats. It’s much simpler and easier. It also leaves fewer obvious clues like bite marks on the neck. That’s so ‘Hollywood’.” Then he added mischievously, “But there are occasions when we do that, too...just to keep the legend alive.”
After another moment, he continued, almost apologetically, “Maddie, we can’t take prisoners and we don’t leave survivors.” A fleeting glimmer of sorrow clouded his dark eyes.
“Oh my God,” Maddie whispered to herself, barely hearing these last words, and yet understanding them somewhere in the dark reaches of her being. The violence, the feasting, the death, all around her. This was all too much for her to understand.
They both watched the awful scene before them. The feeding and sucking would continue until every drop of blood was consumed, until the heart finally ceased its rhythm.
“Now,” Jonesy said quietly as he looked back to Maddie. “I’m hungry. And as you can see, there are four of us who need to feed, three humans currently providing nourishment...and you.”
As she looked over the store, Maddie began to shake uncontrollably. Her mind couldn’t fathom what was happening, what was about to happen. Her heart was racing in her chest, pounding. Her breathing became labored and erratic as darkness began to close in.
“Maddie!” Jonesy said sharply with a deep animalistic growl, all sympathy now gone. At the sound of his strange voice, Maddie brought her terrified eyes back to Jonesy. An evil hunger lurked behind his dark cold eyes, which were now fully focused on her, touching her soul.
“I can give you a severe chest wound,” he said, no longer hiding his ancient guttural growl, “but that is quite painful. Why don’t we keep the legend alive, just for tonight?” And with that Jonesy stepped closer to Maddie, his shadow a curtain extinguishing the light reflected in her desperate eyes.
Maddie screamed. Her scream echoed outside in the parking lot...and then was suddenly silent.
Ken Courtenay began writing short stories a few years ago. His stories have been published in several on-line Ezines including SNM Horror Magazine, Spinetinglers in the UK and now two at The Horror Zine. One of his stories has also been included in the “2011 Spinetinglers Anthology.” Ken also enjoys writing and playing music while living with his wife north of Atlanta, Georgia.