In general I’m not big on the whole zombie/undead/vampire/werewolf thing. I’ve not bothered to watch Walking Twilight War Z (or whatever the current craze is calling itself) or any other similar show or film since the days of Buffy. But a while back I had an idea for a slightly different angle on the traditional generic supernatural stalker tale, and cranked out a short story during a slow day at the office. I’ve decided to resurrect (ha!) that story and present it here for Halloween, with just a little bit of cleanup from its original 2004 form because I’m never satisfied with my writing when I read it after some time has passed. I considered taking out my bad attempt at conveying a vaguely 17th century British accent that probably never existed,but that felt like too much work.
* * *
Owen Pierce didn’t let the fish get to him any more.
Certainly they had been a distraction in the early decades, always nibbling and tugging at his flesh as if he were some rancid hunk of meat on the end of a fisherman’s line. These days, though, they mostly left him alone; probably his blood had all seeped away years ago, so the local sea life simply didn’t notice his scent often anymore. And when something did occasionally venture to take a bite, it seldom came back for a second helping. Of course, he could hardly remember what fish looked like. So long had he been in the dark, so vague were his memories of the many years of his lonely sojourn, that he knew fish now only by the tiny, barely perceived quivers that rippled through what was left of his body whenever something gave a spirited yank at a dangling strand of torn muscle.
Not that he had forgotten everything. He recalled the long fall, the single step off a precipice unseen in the blackness. A seemingly endless plummet into the ocean’s deepest depths. Had it lasted minutes? Days? Centuries? Down here time was unknowable and irrelevant. He remembered the weight of the water pressing down on him, weight that should have crushed him; but whatever power of hate and fury animated him now had also been proof against the pressure, and indeed against the impact when he had finally crashed to the solid ground at the bottom of the world. Rage and anger had burnt away any memory of love and joy, but terror he could still feel, still remember – and terror had been his companion through that long plummet.
However long the fall had taken, the climb back up the other side had been interminably longer. How many lifetimes of mortal men had he spent clawing his way up the rocky wall of the deep chasm, scrabbling – if his slow, ponderous movements could in fact be called scrabbling – for handholds, often falling back down again into the same deep pit? How much time had he spent walking the sea floor trying to find a scalable slope in the pitch black depths? How many new fissures in the sea floor had claimed him again, drawing him down into their deep recesses? The part of him that had once felt would have been frustrated, then dismayed, and, finally, utterly defeated.
The part of him that was left felt nothing save the single-minded need to seek out the far-off sources of the burning inside him and to destroy them. Those sources had grown from few to many over time, but during Owen’s climb, their numbers had dwindled again, and now there were hardly any left.
No matter, though – one or a million, he must eliminate them all. That fact he remembered as well as he remembered the day he’d uttered the words which had brought this terrible fate upon him.
* * *
“You shoulda seen ‘is face!” Owen laughed. He took another swig from the bottle of ale Andreas Morgan had passed to him, and then handed it off to one of the rough-looking men who crewed the merchant vessel his partner had acquired under questionable circumstances. “’E wouldn’t tell me ‘ow to get into that vault, so I ‘ad to cut ‘im up a bit. Not so much it killed ‘im, right, but I made it ‘urt a lot, I did. ‘E passed out right after he tol’ me where the key was! ‘E woke up while I was still emptyin’ his cash into my wagon, but all ‘e could do was squirm in the ropes an’ try to shout through the gag I’d stuffed in ‘is gob! We’ve done it, Andreas! With my little wi’drawal an’ your ship an’ crew, we’re rich men on our way free and clear to the New World!”
“One problem with that,” Andreas said, that deep voice of his carrying an ominous tone that startled Owen out of his revelry. “You were seen, and you’re not unknown to the local constable, so he’ll recognize your description.”
“What’s it matter? We’re leavin’ the bleedin’ country!”
“Do you think, with the number of ships carrying goods to and from the colonies, that no one will consider you may have got aboard one? That a sketch of you will never reach the authorities overseas? And do you believe that, once you are found, your connections to me will not become known?”
“But… Andreas, we’re partners! I wouldn’t sell ye out, I swear it! I’m-“
“No, I think it best that you don’t accompany us on this journey. Besides,” he continued, signaling with a quick hand gesture to the sailors who were gathering around, “it occurs to me that folks might remark on the arrival of a low-born man with no discernible skill or talent, yet who carries a fair amount of wealth on his person. Better, I think, to divide your share of the money among my crew.”
“But – you can’t -!”
“Get rid of him.”
Owen suddenly found himself being hoisted aloft by a mob of burly sailors. He struggled to free himself, but these were men who could row for hours or scale the rigging effortlessly; he would have been hard pressed to wrestle himself from the grasp of even one of them, let alone a half dozen. Even if he could break away from them, where would he run to?
Time slowed as he felt himself being carried away toward the stern of the ship. He yelled, he screamed, he begged, he pleaded – he wasn’t even sure, later, what his exact words had been. But his cries were ignored. Then came a brief, weightless moment, and suddenly the cold Atlantic water stunned him as he plunged beneath the waves.
Yet the shock of his landing startled him out of his panic, so that he had the presence of mind to determine which way was up and to swim in that direction. He emerged coughing and spluttering, frantically searching for the ship which was speeding away from him. Already he could feel the chill seeping into his limbs, and knew on some level that this would be his end. But his anger burned, and in his rage he shouted into the mist at his former partner:
“I curse ye, Andreas Morgan! I swear, I will hunt ye down, beyond death – ye, or yer children, or yer children’s children – all yer offspring to the end of time! Yer line will end, and the death of yer last descendant will be at my hands!”
* * *
Harris Morgan sat staring blankly ahead, mesmerized by the rhythmic clippety-cloppety sound of horses’ hooves striking the cobblestone road as the animals drew the black wagon he rode on. It was a blissful distraction, this moment of emptiness, after the stress of the past months – the long illness, the arguments with the doctors, the unpaid bills piling up. At least now, after today, he could look forward to trying to get his own life back to something resembling normalcy.
The driver reined in at last and brought the team to a halt. Harry climbed down to join the already waiting mourners while six men in black suits lifted the coffin from the wagon and carried it toward the cloth-lined opening in the ground where it would soon be placed.
“Friends and loved ones,” began the preacher at some point, “we are gathered here to pay our final respects to Margaret Morgan. Maggie was a long time member of my congregation, and I knew her to be…”
Harry numbly tuned out the liturgy; he wasn’t interested in someone else’s memories of his mother. As a child he had never truly understood the sacrifices she’d made for him as a single mom trying to raise a son in a society that still wasn’t well suited for such an arrangement. He probably still didn’t understand, he knew; maybe he never would. What he did understand in a disconnected way was that his last connection to his youth and his ancestry was gone.
The service reached its end and he somehow found it in himself to say the requisite words of thanks to the old acquaintances and the distant elderly relatives-by-marriage who seemed to be all that were left of his family these days. The wagon driver gave him a ride back to the parking lot, an anticlimactic ending to an event which, it seemed to him, should have been more meaningful or spiritual, but instead just left him feeling drained and empty.
He thanked the driver and reached into his pocket for his keys as he walked toward his car. He couldn’t see it from his current vantage point, but he remembered it was parked next to one of those giant sport-utes that was easy to spot from across the lot. He made his way toward the green behemoth and as he stepped around it, he was surprised to see someone leaning against his own car.
“Kelly! Hi! Uh, what are you doing here?”
“I felt like I’d be intruding if I went to the funeral – after all, we’ve only dated a couple of times.”
“No, it’s okay, you should have come.”
He realized even as he said the words that he was being insincere. As much as he liked Kelly, he hadn’t been in the mood for companionship; in fact, more than anything he’d wanted to be left alone with his thoughts during the burial.
“But I thought maybe you might want some company, or at least somebody to drive you home. I hope I was right, because I left my car at the office and had a friend drop me off… so if you won’t let me give you a lift, I’m going to have to hitch a ride from a stranger.”
He managed a smile. “Thanks. I’m glad to see you.”
In that, at least, he was being honest.
He thought a moment, trying to remember what it was to be “okay”.
“No, not really. Not yet.”
* * *
Owen, now climbing yet again, felt another shift in his perceptions, one he’d felt many times before. The burning changed, refocused, narrowing for the first time since the beginning to a single point that pulled at him unceasingly. Another of his prey had died, and now only one remained! One death and his revenge would be accomplished; one victim, and then the last Morgan would be dead and Owen’s own hellish reality would finally come to a blissful end!
With what mental faculties were left to him he pondered, not for the first time, the nature of his continued existence. Was he dead? Hard to say. Alive? No, this state of being could not be called life. He couldn’t recall a specific moment of death, though, a time when he had stopped breathing or his heart had ceased its beating. He remembered the cold, the slow freezing. He remembered sinking slowly beneath the waves, into the depths, then the long, eternal trudge from the gray into the black.
He remembered gray! Gray, brilliant, beautiful gray, not the inky blackness of the deep ocean, but a murkiness suffused with a hint of light from the distant sun far above. With his memory of gray came a sudden realization. Lately – during whatever living men would call the stretch of time between the beginning of his most recent ascent and now – the world around him had changed. It was subtle and gradual, and not so pronounced that he could see the sea floor around him… but there was gray! At long last, he was near enough to the surface for light to filter down to him!
For a moment, Owen almost remembered what joy had felt like. Soon now, very soon – relatively speaking – he would walk on land once again.
Then he would kill, and then he would die.
* * *
“Harry, are you sure you’re okay? You seem a little edgy.”
“Can’t hide anything from you. Yeah, I guess I am a bit out of sorts today.”
The young couple sat atop a big boulder that jutted further out into the river than the surrounding, smaller rocks along its bank. A heavy storm a few days past had raised the water level and the normally docile river was flowing faster than it had in years, but their perch was tall and solid enough to protect them from the current, and the view as the frothy water wove its way down into the tree-lined valley was spectacular.
“What’s bothering you?”
“Nothing’s bothering me, really, it’s just – I’ve been thinking.”
“Uh-oh. Dangerous pastime.” They both smiled.
“It’s taken almost two years to get all my mother’s affairs settled, what with the wrangling over her insurance, the lawyers…” he shrugged. “Now that it’s finally all over with, I feel like I’ve fallen behind in my own life, and now it’s time start living it again. A new beginning. I’m not sad or depressed, I’m actually hopeful… and a little bit nervous.”
“About the future?”
“Yeah. Specifically the very near future. For instance, I’m nervous about what you’ll say when I show you this.”
From the pocket of his light jacket he produced a tiny velvet-lined box. He tried to suavely pop it open with his thumb as he brought it up in front of her, but he fumbled and nearly dropped it. He caught the box with his free hand before it could tumble into the water, and this time held it in one hand and opened it with the other to reveal its contents.
She gasped and reached out a finger toward the diamond ring inside, as if she needed to touch it to believe what was happening.
“Well… will you?”
In response, she looked up at him and kissed him so hard he almost fell off the rock.
* * *
The climb went on, but the slope was less steep; and now Owen could sense the passing of days from the changing of the light above. He could see around him once again – vague silhouettes and indefinite shapes, to be sure, but it was vision nonetheless. His long walk would end soon.
* * *
“Who was that on the phone?” Harry asked, looking up from the pile of wedding thank-you notes – which should have gone out weeks ago – that he was in the process of signing and stamping. He’d promised to help out with all of the annoying wedding-related chores that tradition demanded, and Kelly was holding him to that promise.
“Remember that last-minute interview I had just before the wedding, the one with the investment firm we figured was a long shot?”
“They just called and offered me the job. Six-figure salary with all the perks, chance for advancement… the works.”
He jumped up, knocking a tray full of envelopes onto the floor, and embraced her.
“Congratulations! Did you accept it?”
“Not yet. I told them we’d have to talk it over first.”
“We already talked about it before the interview!”
“We talked about it, but we didn’t really talk about it. We never thought it would happen, and we were kind of distracted by other things at the time. It’s a big decision – if I take this job, it will mean a lot of changes.”
* * *
If Owen could still breathe, he would have gasped at the touch of air as the top of his head poked through the water’s surface for the first time since that terrible day so long ago. Soon his eyes rose above the waves, and he knew once more, in spite of the ravages of wear and time on his tattered body, the feel of sun and wind upon his face.
This was either the time called morning or the time called evening, he knew, but what exactly was the distinction between the two he neither recalled nor cared. Ahead of him, on the sandy shore, he saw not fish nor blooms of algae, but people; genuine, living people. He felt emotion then, again. He hated them. He wanted to destroy them all, but they fled before him as he lumbered onto the beach.
No matter; there were only two deaths Owen truly needed. The Morgan’s… and his own.
His prey, he could sense, was moving toward him. Almost as if his target was embracing its destiny, rushing to meet its fate. After all the days, the years, of Owen’s trek through the abyss, this would be the day when it all would end.
* * *
Harry gazed out the window, idly following the path of a passing fuel truck. Kelly, sitting beside him, took his hand in hers.
“Nervous about starting a new life next week?”
“No – well, yes, but that’s not the main reason I’m distracted.”
‘Uh-oh… the last time we had this kind of conversation, I ended up with a husband.”
“What I’m thinking now is kind of along the same lines.”
“Well, I’m open to the concept, but I’ll have to warn you that polygamy’s illegal in most of the world.”
Harry laughed. “No, what I’m thinking is – I mean, after we get settled into the new house and I find work and you’re comfortable with the new job, of course – maybe we could officially start trying to start a family.”
“Lots of kids, like we talked about?”
“Oh, dozens at least.”
“How about we be realistic for once and go for two or three and see how it progresses from there?”
“Oh, no,” he grinned at her, “as far as I know I’m the last of my line, so we need to breed a lot of new Morgans to keep things going.”
She gave him a playful whack on the chest, then leaned across the seat to lay her head on his shoulder. They sat in silence for a few moments, absorbing the implications of their decision. Their revelry was interrupted, though, by an announcement over the intercom.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking. Welcome to British Airways flight 172 to London; we hope you’ll enjoy your flight and your visit to the British Isles.”
“Well, we’re off,” Harry said. “You know, I never pictured myself living overseas, but the idea has kind of grown on me.”
* * *
As Owen shambled his way across a wide, open field, he could feel the Morgan very close now, and moving toward him once again. Slowly his prey approached at first, but it gathered speed until it seemed the Morgan was moving faster than the wind itself, the last of the line coming straight on toward his ancestor’s bitter enemy.
Ahead, a giant thing of metal grew larger in his vision. The burning within him grew intense, so that he felt it would consume him. The Morgan was inside the thing, the massive steel carriage that now threatened to smash into Owen.
So his prey was fighting back – a last, desperate struggle for survival. It would do him no good. Owen had survived the world’s deepest, darkest depths; no steel-clad, over-sized wagon would stay him. He would latch on to the thing as it passed, climb atop it, rip open its doors. He would plunge inside and wrap his bony fingers around the Morgan’s neck, and he would squeeze and twist until freedom was his.
But the metal thing, he discovered, was not a carriage; it was a great steel bird! Owen stopped in his tracks when it began its rise; he reached up and clutched in vain at empty space when the creature passed over his head. The wind of its passing knocked him backward, flipping him end over end until he came to rest at last face down on a dark, solid road surface.
He climbed to his feet again and looked to the sky, where the Morgan and the monstrous creature he rode upon were vanishing quickly into the east. The burning grew less as his prey moved farther and farther away, but still it pulled him, drawing him in the direction of his intended victim.
As he stood watching, motionless, somewhere within him a centuries-old bubble of air finally popped and released. It passed through his throat and emerged with a hiss, the sound of a long, soulful sigh.
He turned back toward the water and started walking again.