Welcome to Helltown

📅 Published on October 29, 2021

“Welcome to Helltown”

Written by Eli Pope
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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Chapter 1: Blake and Dani’s Dark Tourism

Welcome to Helltown, Ohio.

The dripping letters and numbers appeared to have been spray-painted over the original town’s name and stats. Population: 3,000,000+ Elevation: -6666. A nice place to visit. A better place to live.

I laughed out loud at the advertisement of millions of souls inhabiting Helltown happily below sea level. At almost negative 7000 feet, it certainly qualified to be the depths of hell. The earthly inhabitants appeared to have long disappeared as the placard stood off level and unmaintained. Its Metal posts were twisted, and the billboard dented on its edges and corners. It leaned sadly to its side adorned with a multitude of bullet holes. The steel carcass long rusted underneath its faded green background now lent the appearance of barely an ability to be standing on its own. Nature’s cancer had left it behind to die slowly along the deserted highway. Trails of weathered brown stains bleeding down the marquee’s face resembled tears from the decades of an ignored state of disrepair.

Looking out past the town’s once-proud billboard of welcome, I cracked another smile to myself. Carefully, of course, knowing Dani took this whole undead business very seriously. This is where our adventure would begin, our attempt at searching out scary sites of horror and macabre lore. This place, this Helltown, if you will—held several legends to explore and seemed to be a popular destination for this new type of horror-seeking vacationers. A group we had now invested ownership in by traveling long-distance from Missouri for the faint chance of having the shit scared out of us. I’d been hoping for sand and Florida beaches or even Mexico, but Dani thought that sounded too ordinary.

There would be no rolling ocean waves or umbrella drinks on chaise lounges this time. But hey, this destination boasted a slew of everything including a haunted cemetery, a community of chemically plagued walking dead zombies and huge pythons. It didn’t even stop at that! There were also Satanic cultists practicing sacrificial offerings in the old town church. And let’s not forget the haunted bridge, complete with an undead toddler skittering around its structure nightly. Who could say no to this, right?

I looked over at Dani, my fiancé, and she smiled. Granted, it was a nervous smile, but she’d asked for this. The entire idea had been all hers.

I parked alongside the road where the highway was blocked by railings that were nailed into large wooden posts. What followed on the backside were several huge boulders. It felt like a second warning ensuring any would-be trespasser to take heed because you weren’t welcome if you hadn’t understood this by the first obstacle. Just across these barricades, one old highway led off to the left and on our side of the blockade, the newer road continued to the right.

A dilapidated old church was surrounded and propped up by tree branches slowly swallowing the building’s remnants with its limbs and roots. The Holy structure barely holding itself in place as it leaned, slightly left and cantered toward us. I imagined giant octopus’ arms intertwined, constricting what little life was still left. The once beautifully color-stained windows were mostly long busted out leaving only shards of dagger-like pieces to dissuade the outside elements from entering in. Eerie darkness spilled from its opening as the large front entrance lay gaping wide. It should be screaming out in pain and horror and even the thought nudged me to stand still several moments concentrating my ears to search for such sounds. But only silence answered back.

To the left of the church, alongside the abandoned highway, sat an old school bus. The yellow paint losing its battle with decay, allowing the rust to take its grip and feast on its metal body, leaving gaping open wounds.

I looked over to Dani, “Well babe, we’re here. Goodbye swimsuits and cool water, hello Helltown, the dark adventure begins now!” I lifted my leg over the railing and turned my gaze to her, offering my hand to assist.

The sky was clear except for a few dark scattered clouds to the south. The dense humid air was almost deafening as nary a sound of another soul was acknowledged. There were no birds chirping or crickets chattering. Only emptiness and the heat of the days-soaked sun surrounded us. It looked as if we owned the entire area to ourselves. I couldn’t remember when we’d passed another car or seen so much as a gas station alongside the road. We were deep in the boonies of the Cuyahoga Valley. I could almost hear “Dueling Banjos” playing in the distance like Burt Reynolds and his friends heard in the movie Deliverance. The opening scene just before their personal hell swallowed them up, surrounding them in a terror some would end up not surviving. I shook the feeling off with a nervous smile as the banjo played on inside my head.

“Blake…” Dani hesitated as she grabbed for my hand and lifted her left leg over the metal guard. “…I know…I…I know that this was my…um…my idea…” Her eyes searched until they met mine square, her teeth biting at her lower lip. “Do you think this is smart? I mean, now that we’re here…it’s already very late in the afternoon and no one else is around…I expected to see other adventurers.” I saw an authentic concern and hesitation in her beautiful, dark green eyes. “…I know I sound like a baby now, but…” I smiled and her gaze lightened in tone just a bit. “…never mind, we’ll be okay. You wouldn’t ever leave me anyway.”

“No Dani, I would never leave you. I love you, sweetie. We’re a team that is irreplaceable.” She placed her other hand on my shoulder for balance and finished clearing her body onto the side of the railing where I stood. She leaned in, tightening her arms around my neck, pulling herself closer. I could feel her warm breath on my skin just below my ears. The heat it held, along with the softness in her sigh, drew me in to hug her tightly and offer assurance. “Babe, we don’t have to do this if you’re uncomfortable….”

“Blake,” she interrupted, “I didn’t have you drive for nine hours to come this far, just to turn around.” She pushed back and smiled at me. “I’m okay, it was my idea—and there is no way I’m not following through! I’ve dreamed for this day to finally arrive far too long to go home now unanswered!” She moved her hands from around my shoulders and grabbed me, leading us toward the church with vigor. “Look, the website was right—there’s the upside-down crosses over the door and below the steeple roof. Watch out for any sacrificial devil worshipers! Last one in gets to watch the other’s heart get eaten!” She giggled.

As we walked closer, we could see the paint was completely gone from the lap siding. The wood was stained with mold and rotted piles of chipped paint lay stacked around the foundation. It was difficult to imagine how this church would have appeared back when it was painted a brilliant white. I tried to picture a manicured yard surrounding it and free from the crooked limbs and knotted roots which now choked its life slowly from existence. Carefully stepping through the opening and dodging spider webs and debris, I noticed the slow, scary, creaking sound of the door opening was missing. Reason being, it lay broken off its hinges, cast to the side like a defiled and defeated guardian. It felt almost sacrilegious, the state this church had been allowed to fall into. It did make it even a more fitting place for worshiping the dark angel instead of God. I briefly wondered if even the Almighty felt sorrow at the destruction of his house.

The wind had been still and silent until the moment I stepped past the threshold. Suddenly I could feel a cool breeze and it only felt colder after Dani followed me inside.

“Wow! It feels nice in here. I thought it would be stuffy and hot.” Dani stated.

“Funny, it was hot and dank at first. The breeze didn’t cool things off until I fully stepped through.”

“Are you messing with me, Blake? I mean, maybe it’s all the spirits of the victims who were sacrificed. Could be their cold souls entrapped within these walls.” She poked me in the back and chuckled.

“I’m dead serious, Dani.”

“Shoosh.” Dani’s ears perked and her eyes became focused as she scanned the large sanctuary. Several pews were shoved in groups against the walls while others lay broken and scattered about.

“What, babe?”

“Did you hear that?” She held her finger to her lips as if to shoosh me again.

I felt a chill travel the length of my spine. “Hey, are you messing with me now?”

“Don’t tell me you don’t hear those children’s voices. Squeals and giggles?” Dani kept her smile hidden until she finally turned and showed her face to me.

“Dani, you bitch! You had me for a minute!” I smiled but found little humor in it when it came right down to it. I knew I’d felt weird, cold chills hovering around me, and I was beginning to think I’d started to hear kids’ giggles myself. And that was before she ever mentioned them.

“Oh, Blake. Who’s the chickenshit now?” She smiled. “I’m going to have to rethink this whole engagement thing if you’re going to be such a fraidy-cat. I never took you as the pussy type…I mean…” She giggled again.

I lightly stepped further into the room, dodging some oddly placed sticks and stones, knowing they could indeed break bones. Chuckling to myself at the odd timing the old nursery rhyme entered my thoughts. I noticed the altar lying directly in front of us. There appeared to be some small bones and feathers piled on a stone slab in the center. The lectern laid toppled on its side to the right and bore a drippy red spray-painted pentagram on its dusty walnut front. It was displayed directly over a wooden cross that was carved into its face. The paint was brown from age and exposure. Obviously, it wasn’t all that old, though. Certainly not as old as the legend read of the church’s inception. I remember reading that Satanists had taken over the church early in its beginnings. Spray paint wasn’t available back in 1806 when Boston Township was founded and the Roman Catholic Church, Mother of Sorrows, was erected.

Dani and I had researched this area several weeks earlier on all the legends and spooky tales involved before deciding to take our vacation trip to check this place out. The haunted school bus where children’s voices could be heard, the cemetery where the old man ghost sat on a bench or wandered the grounds aimlessly, and of course, Crybaby Bridge, where a distraught mother threw her young toddler into the river. Legend has it that if you parked your car on Crybaby Bridge and took your keys with you, when you returned, your car would be running and locked. The hood and top would be covered in dust with fresh babies’ footprints embedded. We planned to check out as many of these scary legends as possible.

“Blake, it’s getting really cold in here. I think I’m ready to move on and check out the school bus.”

“I agree, it’s chilly. Must be an underground spring or something.”

“The polluted one that caused the mutants to grow red-pupiled eyes and the thirst for human flesh?” Dani asked.

“Yeah, zombies that want nothing but our blood! Muhuhahaha…” The sun suddenly dipped behind a cloud and simultaneously painted the sanctuary pitch black for several seconds.

“Well, that was eerie, Blake—I’m ready to call it good and move on.”

“It’s just the spirits trying to enhance the experience for you, babe!”

As I made my way towards the door, I noticed what looked like a blood trail on the floor. Drips gathered into dried puddles periodically on the dingy, dust-covered boards. What made them stand out was that some of the puddles seemed to be underneath the layers of dust, while others clearly sat on the top layer. I leaned down, pulling my knife from its sheath and pointed my flashlight toward the area in front of my knee. Using the blade and gently lifting a drip that appeared to sit on top, I easily scooted it to the right. To my surprise the droplet stayed intact. “Dani, come here, look at this.” I heard the soft crunch of her footsteps, her shadow darkening the area in front of me slightly.

“What? What are you looking at?”

“I’m not sure. It looks like dried blood drops, but do you see what I see?”

“Blake, stop trying to scare me. I’m ready to move on. It looks like lantern oil or something to me anyway.”

“Dani! I’m dead serious! Look, this is odd. The blood…or oil… it’s dry.  It’s obviously been here for a long time. Oddly though, if not impossible,  some of it dried on the top layer of dust and some drips are dried underneath the dust. How does that happen?” I took the edge of my knife and scooted the droplet, sliding it onto the top dust layer, exposing more droplets underneath. “If this blood…”

“Or oil,” Dani interrupted sounding curt with her comment.

“Okay, fine,” I replied. “If this is oil, it was all from the same…body or container.” I retorted pointedly. “…It would have pooled together and mixed, not dried, and then given enough time for the dust to settle before another drip could fall. It doesn’t make any sense whether it’s blood or oil. Don’t you find that odd?”

“Yes, it’s odd, OK! Let’s just go, Mr. Scientist. I don’t like the feeling I’m getting in this place. I don’t want to add our layer of blood on top for the next dark tourist to find and then question how in hell it ended up here. Let’s get out!”

“To me it suggests different sacrificial killings at different times and…” I stopped voicing my opinion when Dani turned, got up, and began walking away. “Okay, I agree, it’s downright creepy in here…” I sheathed my knife and turned to lift myself up off my knee. The dim light flickered, and I thought I saw a shadow pass across one of the glassless windows. “Did you see that?”

“Yeah, Oh my God, Blake! You’re right, OK? I saw what blood drops could possibly be—now can we just get the fuck out of here!” Dani said with building anger.

“No Dani, I mean that shadow that just passed.”

“Screw you, Blake, I’m leaving.” Dani began to move more briskly towards the door which was on the opposite side of the window I’d seen the shadow.

“Someone’s out there, Dani, wait a minute.” She stopped cold.

In a whisper she spoke as she turned back to face me, “Did you hear that? Twigs snapping…” Dani’s eyes instantly filled with fear. “What do we do? Something is out there.”

Chapter 2: Tension Grows

Outside the church’s structure, I thought I noticed another black shadow as it moved past a second window. Leaves crumpled under the footsteps and the sounds continued. There were more footsteps that followed briskly behind, but no voices. Had other tourists showed up while we were inside?

On the front side of the church, I led, and Dani followed, almost on top of me. Once we were several feet from the front door, I looked toward the bus on the right and then panned my eyes towards my Jeep Explorer. It still sat parked, appearing undisturbed. “Well—no visitors other than us, babe. Must have just been our imaginations—you know, a case of the jitters! Do we wanna check out the bus—or head for our Jeep?”

The sound of children giggling erupted in taunting voices and echoed from behind the old school bus.

Dani reached for my hand, “The Jeep, let’s hurry….”

She led us into a fast-paced jog once we cleared the roots, which dipped in and out of the ground like serpents grouping together in a coiled ball. She nor I looked back until we hurdled the roadblock, each of us reaching our respective doors. I shoved my hands into my pocket for the keys but found nothing other than change jingling. “Dani, give me the keys….”

“I don’t have them, Blake. You drove, remember?”

“I don’t have them….”

Chapter 3: Unravelling

I looked over the top of the Jeep, then back to the church we’d just come from. My hands still inside my pockets nervously searching for keys I didn’t remember putting there. I peeked inside the window of the vehicle. “Damnit!”

“What, Blake? Hurry, I’m scared! If you’re joking— stop! It’s not funny anymore….”

“They’re in the damned ignition,” I pulled my right hand out of my pocket and pulled the door handle, praying it was unlocked. “Check your door, Dani….”

I tried again, and then moved to the passenger door on my side. Locked. “Keep trying, try the passenger door!” I looked back across the hood to the church, and I saw movement in the darkened shadows of the trees. “Quick Dani, try the hatch! There is something coming around the church—hurry!” I threw my backpack on the hood of the Jeep, fumbling with the zipper, trying to quickly open it. I heard a click and looked back to see Dani crawling into the hatch as she quickly cleared the back seat, moving forward….

I withdrew the Glock 21 .45 ACP from my pack, quickly grabbing the strap of the bag and moved backwards to the driver’s door, pulling on the handle. “Hurry, Dani! Open my door!” I looked toward the church again, this time seeing nothing. The Jeep door clicked, and I swung it open and jumped in, throwing my bag and firearm onto Dani’s lap. In a flash I twisted the key, bringing the Jeep to life. Stomping the gas pedal to the floor as soon as the gear shift slammed into drive, the rear wheels spun throwing gravel and debris behind us. “Holy shit,” I screamed as the rubber connected with the asphalt, squealing the tires and fishtailing us onto the highway we’d just come from. My heart was pounding as I looked at Dani and then up to the rearview mirror. “Was this real? Or did we just get spooked—was there really something back there?”

Dani’s eyes were full of tension. She was shaking with nervous energy, her breaths still frantic and unsteady. “I…I…my God…I…” She reached over and slugged my arm hard with force. “You, fuck…why did you bring me here?” She burst into full-blown tears of panic mixed more than likely with relief from our escape.  “Why, Blake?”

The Jeep began to lurch and lose power. It coughed and sputtered, jumped and sputtered again. “Oh shit!” I instinctively looked at the gas gauge. Empty. “Son-of-a-….”

“Blake, don’t play this game…” Her eyes wide open as she turned to look behind us, spying the roadblock and abandoned church still in view not that far behind. “Blake…” Sniffles overtook her words along with heaving shaken breaths. “…no more games, baby. I wanna get as far away from here as we can.”

“I know Dani, but…I’m not playing games…” I stared into the rearview mirror, expecting to see blood dripping zombies or whatever we’d caught a glimpse of that sent us running. “…do you remember how far back up the road a gas station or something was? Anything that could help us?”

She punched me again and again in the arm as the Jeep sputtered its last gasp. I coasted her off to the shoulder onto the grass, still in sight of Helltown’s entrance. I saw the church steeple rising above the treetops. The place we’d thought to have escaped from unharmed was only a couple of thousand feet behind.

“There…wasn’t…anything…for miles, Blake,” she spoke in broken words between catching her breath. She looked out over the horizon of hills and trees. “It’s…it’s going to be dark soon—isn’t it?” She pounded on the dash as she buried her head into my shoulder.

“We’re going to be okay, Dani. These are just legends made up to scare people, thrills to speed heartbeats. They’re not real. There are no ghosts, no mutants from the toxic spill, or Satanic worshippers hungry for human sacrifices. It’s all lore and legend.” I pulled her closer, squeezing her as tight as I could from the seated position, we were in. “Look at me, Dani.” I pushed her forehead back so she could see my face. “I promise, baby, I’m going to keep you safe…and I won’t ever leave you. Now, do you remember anything on the other side of the bridge up ahead? Gas station, house, anything?”

Dani slowly turned her eyes back to the road ahead, her breaths more stable, but still fluctuating occasionally. As she turned back again, staring into my eyes, she began to speak, “Oh no….”

“What, Dani?”

Her hand lifted and she began to stretch out her finger, pointing toward the road ahead. Her lips trembled and her eyes dropped and formed a look of sudden defeat. Dani’s finger finally stretched completely straight and trembled in an unsteady shake as she spoke, “Cry… Crybaby…Bridge….”

That is when our predicament truly swept over me. We were trapped. Helltown was behind us, dark forests filled with trees on either side, and a river in front. A car out of gas that we sat in and only a haunted bridge to cross the river that would separate us from—the spook-filled town—and home. A town where we’d seen weird blood drops and creepy shadows of possible toxin-poisoned mutants stalking the area. A bridge where, according to local lore, a crazy woman tossed her baby over into the river for no known reason. A bridge that now supposedly held ghosts of that horror from the past. Somehow left stranded to terrorize anyone who parked on it and got out. Well, we weren’t parked “on it” but we were damn sure close. The legend said that if you parked on the bridge and got out with your car turned off, upon return, your car would be running, doors locked, and dust…baby tracks…well shit….

What to do, what to do….

Chapter 4: A Plan Nobody Likes

We sat in silence as the sun continued its slow fall behind the horizon in front of us. Not one single car had passed, nor did anything break the stillness around us. Neither Dani or I held any words to speak. I knew she blamed me for all of this. Even though this “dark tourism” was her passion, by no means, mine. Somehow though, the outcome of this ordeal—suddenly felt neatly laid upon on my plate. I glanced over at her, slightly bitter as she silently stared out her window. I glanced into the rearview mirror toward Helltown. I could still see where the road veered to the left off the highway, the sinking sun reflecting from the town’s placard. That sign that had the balls to display their farcical creed, “A nice place to visit. A better place to live.” Yeah, like hell it was. The welcoming committee for this place sucked.

One thing kept going through my head as we sat in silence. The sun would soon be leaving us, and darkness would take its place. Nightfall and Helltown did not seem a good fit together, especially with what we’d just experienced in the late afternoon sun. I imagined it could only get worse. Dani would not go walking back from the direction we’d just come, and how could I blame her. We held no clues what lie past Helltown on the highway to the right anyway. Venturing off into the wilderness away from the highway to our left or right was not an option either. The only viable solution was to walk across that damned bridge and head back from whence we’d first come, looking for anyone who could help us. We weren’t parked on the bridge and our Jeep was out of gas, so the legend didn’t really fit our circumstances. “Dani…” I looked her way and waited for her to respond. Nothing. I reached over and cupped her hand with mine. “Dani, we have to do something. I suggest we leave our vehicle and walk forward. Surely, we’ll stumble onto someone willing to help us. We’re in the fucking heartland of America. People are good neighbors here.” I paused and waited. Silence. “We can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

“I’m not crossing that haunted bridge, Blake. I won’t allow myself to witness an innocent baby being tossed over the railing by some whacked-out bitch. Even if they are just ghosts, no longer human.”

“I can go look for gas, and you could stay locked up in the Jeep with my handgun if you’d rather.”

“What the hell happened to, ‘I won’t ever leave you, Dani. I love you,’” she asked as her eyes began to aim daggers at me.

I reached under the seat and pulled out my other Glock, a G36 Slim, the same caliber as my G21 only more compact.

“Blake! What the hell? I didn’t know you had another Glock.”

“We can either take it with us and each be armed as we walk across that damn bridge—together…” I paused. “…or I leave it with you, and I go alone. Those are the only legitimate options. I want you with me. That’s my preference.”

“You’d really leave me here alone, while you take off across that haunted bridge and leave me trapped in between two scary-ass sites…in the dark? By myself?” She guffawed. “Wow, that’s some damned true love right there! I guess in a way, it’s a good thing we took this trip. I’m glad I’m finding out your lack of loyalty and love for me before we actually tied the eternal fucking knot together.”

“Dani! Damnit! That’s not fair. I’m trying to do the best I can. I don’t want to leave you. I want you beside me, but we can’t just sit here and wait. It’s been an hour and no one or nothing has so much as made a noise—let alone driven by. I think society has ceased existence out here. Do you really want to just sit in place in the pitch black, waiting for those damned goons to make their way here if they do exist? Come with me. The bridge legend doesn’t even fit our circumstances. We aren’t parked on the bridge and the Jeep doesn’t have any fuel anyway. It can’t run! And who cares about dust and footprints? Who gives a shit?” My voice was rising, and I hated that fact. I forced myself to tone it down.

“I’m scared, Blake. If we get out of this—don’t ever let me talk you into another ghost adventure. Please don’t ever take me anywhere like this, ever again, even if I beg you. Which I won’t!” She began to open her door as she carefully looked around. “Give me the fucking Glock, dammit.”

We both climbed out of the Jeep and looked back as the last of the sun sank below the horizon. If it were different circumstances, I know we’d both see the beauty in the pink and orange sky slowly darkening while the tops of the hills gleamed a streak of beautiful crimson red as it became swallowed up by the blackness. There was no bright moon shining its beacon of hope, only scattered shimmering stars beginning to twinkle above. We both began walking towards the bridge, hand in hand, each packing a .45 in our other hands.

Chapter 5: What the Hell was That

The burbling of the river became an audible sound about thirty yards into crossing the seam of the bridge. It felt like a stab at breaking the silence when Dani suddenly asked me the question. “So, would you have really left me back in the car—alone?”

“Dani, do you really wanna go there now? I mean, we’re not outta the woods. While I don’t totally buy into all these mutant/children of the corn crap, we are stuck here without wheels—out of gas in the middle of fuckin’ nowhere and the sun has left us in the dark.”

“Why did you bring me here then? What was your drive to make this trip?”

I could hear a seriousness in her voice. The question wasn’t just to break the silence and make the walk go by faster. She was searching for real reasons. We were going to have that long conversation involving the old “why do you say you love me” conversation. I dider, I mean, I do love her—at least I think I do. “Dani, I don’t wanna go there, not ever and certainly not now. You know I love you. I would have left both handguns with you if it came down to it, but….”

“You’ve told me several times that you wouldn’t leave me no matter what…” The footsteps forward stopped, and she turned. “…maybe—just, maybe we should put a hold on plans.”

“I don’t know what to say other than this conversation needs to stop right….”

There was a sudden shrill squeal before there was the sound of a loud water splash, as if someone had hurled a large rock into the river. I immediately pushed past Dani and quick-stepped to the bridge wall and peeked over.

The slow-moving river was a dark empty blackness winding through light stones that glimmered from the star’s reflection. Without enough light to truly make out what was below in the dark gurgling water, I pulled a small Maglite from my pocket. Shining it down onto the water’s surface, I swore I saw rings echoing outward from the middle of the flowing liquid, but I saw no sign of what would have caused it as it quickly dissipated into the dim blur of movement. The sound of footsteps disappearing into the distance drew my attention back to the bridge’s surface. I fully expected to see Dani walking away from me, but I wasn’t certain which direction she would have chosen. I knew she was disappointed in me; our relationship was suffering through the weirdness and tension of our first “trip” together alone. My mind was scattered and twisted—thoroughly confused and fatigued. I pointed the beam toward the Jeep and much to my surprise, Dani was still standing only a few feet from me. I turned to the far side of the bridge expecting to see nothing but a darkened horizon of empty road disappearing into the blackness. What I saw instead was the frantic movement of what appeared to be a glowing aura surrounding a lone woman with flailing arms, her back to both of us. As the light hit her image, she faded somewhat, and a distraught squeal could be heard in the distance again.

Looking back to Dani, I could tell she saw her too. This was not my imagination. Dani was frozen like a statue, her eyes large white orbs bulging with fright.

We were both glued to watching the apparition walk in erratic circles as if dodging my beam of light before she turned and stared at us for a moment. As if caught, she turned away and evaporated into the silent stillness of the night. In the few seconds, we stood, trying to understand what we’d just experienced; a subtle breeze began to softly blow. It was unnoticeable at first, but it became stronger as if the bridge were funneling the breeze like a wind tunnel, causing the gust to build in strength. It felt very cold on my ankles and when I looked down, illuminating the area with the flashlight, I could see a light dusting of a grayish substance collecting across the floor of the bridge. Dani spoke my name with an odd calm and when I glanced over, I saw her lips moving, yet no words spilled from her mouth. It suddenly felt like the world instantly existed only in slow motion. We held absolutely no control over any part of what was taking place.

Dani’s arm lifted and moved deliberately in front of her, and it drew my attention. My eyes rolled upward, watching her finger extend out as if to direct my vision to follow. Instinct forced my eyes to track it out to the distant side of the bridge she was pointing. Their tiny movements on the ground captivated my attention. I felt the muscles in my face instantly release their constriction as my mouth fell helplessly open. I spontaneously pinched my eyes closed as if it would erase the sight I was witnessing. I tried two or three more times, each attempt failing to make the sight disappear.

Chapter 6: Watching Baby Steps

Tiny damp footprints soaked up the dust, leaving an awkward trail of a baby’s path moving toward Dani and me in an odd and indirect approach. My brain attempted a warning, begging my body to take heed and run. Brain waves crossed in the middle of this unprecedented quandary and left my muscles too jellified to move. I was amazed I was still in an upright position. I just stood there, completely mesmerized, watching tiny foot tracks wobble back and forth, to and fro. They left a map imprinted of where they’d come from, sunken and dripping in the sheet of dust.

I wasn’t scared, although my heart pounded loudly. I swear it reverberated between the concrete bridge walls, resounding in my chest like listening to a subwoofer throb out a deep pounding bass from some young punk’s car at a stoplight. Pounding inside my torso, uninvited and causing involuntary palpitations. The sight evaded the ability to frighten me.

“Blake…” Dani’s voice seemed very distant as if it came from one end of an empty auditorium, taking its time to reach me. “Blake!” My name echoed from behind, thundering louder, as if time had somehow reversed the mechanics of how audible waves worked with their relationship to my ears. My brain told me if Dani’s voice came from behind, the second echo should be quieter, not louder. I felt confused and completely hypnotized by what I was witnessing. This impossibility of what I was experiencing, footprints dancing awkwardly with no body or feet attached.

“Blake!” My name suddenly assaulted my ears with booming resolve. “Run, Blake!”

My moment of confusion snapped and smacked me in the face with a cold dose of reality. The tiny footprints came rambling closer to me, no visible or physical means to leave them in the dust—the actuality of the phenomenon hit me. I turned back and saw Dani’s terrified expression pleading with me to save myself, quickly acknowledging it could be for me to then save her. I forced my muscle and nerve structure to cooperate, helping me to indeed run. Once we’d left the edge of the bridge and made it closer to the safety of the Jeep—we both turned back to the bridge in unison. The rambling footsteps halted; two tiny, big toes were imprinted in the dust at the bridge seam. Neither passed the expansion joint between it and the road’s asphalt, refusing to cross the finish line of the race.

We looked at each other in an odd moment of calm. We were safe, and now heard an oncoming vehicle. Maybe we would be saved by a passerby. Again, collectively, we turned toward the highway to face what was oncoming.

A dark roadway lay empty in front of our view. The interior of the Jeep’s windshield was fogged over as if the air conditioner was left running on high. The vehicle that held no fuel in its tank, was now idling before us, purring like a kitten nestled in a warm lap.

Dani sobbed—she turned to face me, “We’re gonna die here tonight…” her expression hollow and sober. “…aren’t we?” Her question hung in the empty space between us. My heart was pounding to a tempo I’d never felt before.

I was almost to the Jeep when I turned to answer her question, “I’m sure as hell not going to lay down and die…it’ll take more than footprints from a baby or some apparition of the worst mother of the century guarding our exit.” I stepped up to the driver’s door and tugged on the handle. It was locked. “Damnit!” I said aloud. Dani lifted her handle, and it was also locked. She reached for the passenger door…locked.

Just about the time she rounded the corner from checking the back hatch, there was a loud smash. Dani looked up as the driver’s door glass shattered. The large rock I bashed it with now sat on my seat. I reached inside and opened the door quickly brushing glass from my seat, tossing the rock to the side of the road where I’d found it. This night couldn’t get any worse, could it?

Chapter 7: The Argument

We heard the crunching of grass echoing from across the road. Just as I turned toward the brushy area, it occurred to me that we had forgotten one of the legend’s horrors surrounding the Helltown lore.

The Peninsula Python, a snake created through mutation from the Krejci chemical dump that closed this town in the Cuyahoga Valley in 1986.

Based on the sound coming from the blackness of the forest, if it were a snake, it had to be huge. It could also be a Satanic worshiper stalking us from the cover of the tall weeds, looking to capture an enthusiast of dark tourism to offer up to the devil. A thought neither Dani nor I had considered, or at least that’s what I thought. We were just foolish posers, bored with the usual weekend in Missouri, and just out to experience something other than the ghost inhabited Pythian Castle or the haunted Albino Farm, both in Springfield. It could also be mutant zombies like the dark silhouettes I now believed were not figments of our imaginations as I’d earlier thought.

“Dani!” I hollered as I got in the car and reached over to unlock her door, seeing her run past the windshield. “Get inside the car!” As soon as her butt hit the seat, I revved the engine before shoving the gearshift into drive. The Jeep lurched forward again chirping the tires on the asphalt, and I wasn’t going to slow down until we were far past the bridge and on the other side of this hell which refused to loosen its grip on us. It didn’t matter if the toddler’s body who left those prints became visible—this vehicle wasn’t going to stop for anything. At least, that was my intention. but intentions don’t always meet the reality as strategized.

My trusty Jeep shot forward past the footprints that had ended at the seam of the bridge and road, leaving a horrid thump and bump as we crossed. I could feel what must be the undead toddler rolling and bouncing underneath the floorboard of the vehicle like if I’d hit a small dog that had shot out in front of us, its legs flipping and rolling below us. I felt every bump and thud. The only thing was, I’d seen nothing in my headlights as we blasted onto the bridge. It didn’t matter, I wasn’t going to stop.

There were no amends to be made with this creepy fucked-up town in the middle of nowhere. We weren’t stopping for no one or nothing.  Again, that was my plan. But like a general in the military will tell you, “The best-laid plans often go awry.” I’ll admit, we both looked behind us to see what might roll out from the undercarriage of the Jeep as we continued, but nothing appeared. Dani cried out, “Why are you slowing down? You didn’t hit anything! Just go, dammit!” Tears of fright filled her eyes as black streaks of mascara now lent proof that she’d been through hell.

“I’m not slowing down because I want to, Dani. The damned Jeep has a mind of its own. There was no fuel—I don’t know how it was running to begin with!” The momentum kept us rolling until we were close to seven or eight yards from the other side of the bridge, a little less than midway. The side of the bridge the mother who’d just thrown her baby into the river had disappeared from.

I turned to Dani, no longer able to keep my look of hope painted across my face. “I fucking give up. You asked if you were gonna die tonight—” I looked away and my head dropped in shame. I’d given this my best shot and I was beat. I thought this trip was bullshit from the start. I hated ghost hunting as much as I despised those stupid fucking geo-caching and PokemonGo nerds. I knew why I’d given in. It wasn’t because I gave a shit about local lore and haunted legends. I now knew it was possibly not even because I loved Dani. It all boiled down to sex.

I knew she’d get all excited and tensed and then at the end of the evening we’d go back to our motel room, and she would ride me like the bucking rodeo bronco I thought I was. I wanted to be her boy toy, not her Satanic-seeking sidekick. My only disappointment now was being stuck here on a haunted bridge on the outer edge of Helltown. And unless I could convince her that this was our last chance to make “love” here in my Jeep with the busted-out window, I wouldn’t be getting laid that one last time before I died. Priorities—right? I thought to myself as I lifted my head back up and smirked, “Pff.”

“Finish your sentence, Blake…”

“What?” I asked.

“You were saying about how you’d told me earlier when I asked about dying tonight…you quit talking for…what seemed like an hour, and then guffawed just now….”

“I was thinking—you know, just in case we don’t make it…you…wanna….” The thought must have been smeared across my face, john to his whore. Was it that obvious?

“Blake, tell me you’re not suggesting sex. Are you serious? Is that all I am to you? Is that why you were just gonna leave me here with your damned gun while you walked away?”

When she said it like that, I felt like a jerk, but not only had I agreed to take her on this ridiculous adventure, but I had also done everything in my power to keep her safe through this insanity. Now, look at us. I’m struggling with the reality that we might not survive the night, but somehow I’m the bad guy for wanting to go out with a “bang.

“You’re an asshole,” Dani said. “My mom was right…I should never have said yes so damned fast.”

I wanted to respond. I knew part of her nailed me right on top of my head, like a ten-penny nail. I sat silently trying to survey the lay of the land, as much as I could see on a moonless night. I shook my head to myself again. Legends were rarely real. This was crazy. Surely, we would both wake up in our bed, realize it was all a weird bad dream, and then go straight for the skin game.

“I’m watching the looks on your face, Blake. You can sit there in silence, but you can be read like a cheap erotica novel…” Dani shook her head and sneered. “…I should have seen it sooner….”

“I can leave if you’d like,” was the only pitiful response I could muster.

“Nothing like sitting in the middle of a haunted-ass bridge, in a haunted-ass town, wondering when some freakin’ mutant zombie or python or devil worshiper is going to kill us…” Dani drew a large shaky breath before continuing. “…and we’re sitting in your Jeep, like we’re parked in my driveway back home, the focal point of everything evil could be outside surrounding us …and we’re having our first major fight together about shagging or not. Priceless.”

I laughed and smiled at Dani. “You got that right. I’m sorry. I’m not going anywhere; I’m not leaving you here alone either. We’re not gonna die, and when this is over, hopefully we can find some humor along with forgiveness from each other. I agree that I haven’t handled this…unusual…pressure very well.” There was a brief silence between us. “I still love you, Dani.”

“I hope so…” Dani looked into my eyes; her upper lip slightly quivered, “…I’d hate to think I wasted such an adventure on someone unworthy….”

We both smiled and she moved her hand to mine, which was still grasping the gear shift. My head lifted and my eyes searched to find hers in the darkened cab of the vehicle. “Can I ask one favor from you since it seems we’re burying the hatchet and making up?” I moved my hand over to her shoulder, my fingers lightly caressing the base of her neck. “I mean this in the nicest way—can I pick the next vacation destination? Maybe a Florida beach or Cancun?” She slugged me on my arm, and I felt the vehicle move slightly. “Shoosh” I instantly cautioned, holding my finger up to my mouth.

There was a soft sound, like sandpaper quietly being pulled across a rough piece of wood. We both froze in silence, our eyes intermittently moving from each other to the windows that enclosed us. I could instantly smell something that stunk. It smelled musky and decayed. I turned to Dani and asked, “Do you smell–” BAM.

Dani instantly screamed hysterically in the shrillest ear-piercing shriek.

Chapter 8: Suddenly Alone

The python’s head quickly penetrated the opening of the Jeep’s door where the window glass once resided. Blake’s face was a hundred and eighty degrees opposite of the opening, staring at Dani. They’d just come to terms and made up, making light humor about their situation, both feeling as if the worst was quite possibly over. Just six or seven hours from daylight to go. They’d sat in the nearly sealed compartment of the Jeep, which was parked just past midway across the river atop Crybaby Bridge. It had taken breaking out the driver’s side window to get this far before the engine sputtered once again to a dead roll. A cool breeze was blowing into the cab through Blake’s open window. Dani’s eyes had clearly shown she knew a make-up kiss was just seconds away from sealing their truce. Blake’s tongue was just beginning to moisten with anticipation.

She’d also surely heard the strange scratchy noise and felt the Jeep jar back and forth slightly. It had drawn her view to the open window and Blake’s last living sight of her eyes. That’s when the dark shadow had become an instant nightmare. A snake’s head, it’s mouth wide open when it struck the back of Blake’s head with a jolt, piercing his skin and gripping his skull within its sharp teeth like a vice. Blake barely had enough time to open his eyes wider. The back of his head now clamped tightly in the grip of the gigantic snake’s jaws. The python’s sheer weight pulled Blake slowly backwards toward the open window headfirst. His hands flailed, grabbing at the ceiling and door frame as the monstrous reptile pulled his bloodied body backwards out through the window. The huge slithery serpent instantly began wrapping its thick scaled body around Blake, constricting him tightly as he was finally pulled entirely through.

Dani shook as she screamed out. Her first thought was to run, but she quickly remembered what she’d seen back behind her at the church and before her on the bridge. She was still trapped, but now even worse. Blake was surely gone for good. Were there more snakes outside? She saw Blakes’ shoe slowly fall back into the car as the last part of his body, his foot, slid out and down the side of the vehicle’s door. She saw the gun lying on the dash and quickly grabbed it. Dani instinctively used the palm of her hand to pull the slide towards the rear of the weapon and quickly release it, charging the chamber with a round. Putting her trigger finger just outside the trigger guard until ready to fire, she carefully crawled across the driver’s seat to peer out the open window.

The snake’s huge thick body had already tightly looped around Blake’s body several times and was squeezing him tightly, its jaws disengaged and fully engulfing Blake’s head. There was no target to shoot without hitting Blake. He was already gone, nothing but the sounds of bones crunching under pressure and body fluids being squeezed through compressed organs in subtle gurgles. The sight and sounds of what she was witnessing made her retch. She leaned toward the steering wheel and gagged, choking and spitting as her stomach tightened and cramped before spewing bile onto the dashboard and floor. She knew she had to leave the illusion of safety she felt in Blake’s Jeep. Wiping her mouth and spitting what was left, she scooted back to the side farthest away from the open window. She had to think this through—quickly, but thoroughly. Moving outside without a plan would be certain death. She was too smart for that. She looked down at her watch. 12 am. Roughly six hours before daylight. She looked ahead through the windshield. Forward was the only route to take. She knew what lay behind her and the distance from the bridge’s rail to the river would bring broken bones or drowning for sure if she jumped. Yes, forward was the only way. “Think,” she spoke in a whisper to herself. How far until there was help? Think! We’d come from the direction that I needed to head, she thought to herself. A gas station or farmhouse…what had she seen last before crossing the bridge on their way to Helltown?

Another cool light breeze gusted through Blake’s window. It stole her thoughts of what she’d seen as far as human-populated places. Dani looked back to the windshield where she saw the light fog of dust blowing again, this time over the hood of the Jeep. Oh, shit! Would the footprints be back? She thought.

Sure enough, the first footprint appeared on the hood and began its toddler’s dance across the front as the wet prints climbed the thin surface of the windshield. Dani soon heard the pitter pat of tiny footsteps on the hood above her, along with coos and squeals. The muzzle of the handgun rose instinctively toward the roof as her finger entered the trigger guard. Could I really shoot through the roof into the sounds of the footsteps of a cooing toddler? Even though I know it’s no longer a living human being. Dani had never been plagued with such a moral dilemma in her life as her internal thoughts battled for an answer. Her hand began to shake. She knew she could accidently pull the trigger in such a state, so she slowly drew her finger back out away from the trigger and rested it against the slide. “No,” she answered her internal question—out loud. The sounds continued as she reached over and flipped the headlight switch on, shining a bright path forward across the bridge’s asphalt floor and past—into the darkness several hundred feet ahead.

A shudder from everything inside her brain caused her to gasp and struggle to draw a much-needed, deep, lung-filled breath. As she slowly exhaled, she whispered, “Calm…you can do this, Dani…you’re a survivor….” She crawled back to Blake’s window and carefully leaned out to look. The predator and its prey, her fiancé, were gone from sight, but she could still hear squishing, frothing noises from behind, towards the rear of the vehicle. After maneuvering back to her side, she turned to look behind one last time. The silence within the Jeep did not remain for very long.

“Oh shit!” Dani said aloud, as if still talking to Blake. She saw at least a dozen dark images several hundred feet in the distance. They appeared to be moving slowly, and they were carrying torches that danced back and forth. The flames were subtle but shined enough to light the dark figures below them. “Fucking Mutant Zombies!” Dani checked her waistband for her second handgun and lifted Blake’s backpack containing everything else the two of them had between them. She rolled her window down slowly and carefully peeked outside, looking down and above, the steps on the roof still producing light thumps back and forth overhead. Swinging the door open, “No real plan, but time to go!” She said aloud as she cautiously put her foot on the ground and began swiftly moving across the bridge. Her eyes roving from every angle, front to back and both sides, handgun charged and held in the defensive stance Blake had taught her.

She looked behind her, and yes, the footprints were still following. She felt no threat from them now. She was glad she hadn’t unloaded a magazine of .45 ACP hollow points into the roof of the Jeep. She didn’t understand the mother tossing her baby, nor did she grasp the wet footprints running willy-nilly through the dust. She did however, for a moment, believe neither had meant any harm to her or Blake. She now wished they would have both kept moving forward instead of back to the vehicle. He’d still be alive and with her if they had.

There were only three more extended steps to where the bridge met the pavement. Dani glanced over her shoulder to check the distance between her, and the shimmering,  Dani smiled to herself, feeling proud momentarily of her achievement and ability to keep her composure. I may be a girl, but I’m a force to be reckoned with! She thought to herself. “Keep it up girl, you’re gonna make it. I don’t know how you’ll explain this shit, but you will survive,” were the words she spoke with excitement that gave her the veracity to continue on strong.

Chapter 9: Reflections on the Move

As soon as her foot crossed the seam between the bridge and the side of the road Dani stood on, she felt as if a badge of courage had been pinned on her chest. She’d done it. She’d not only survived, but done it on her own, of her own accord and wits. She slowed to a quick-paced walk, checking over her shoulder regularly to see if the flickering flames had gained any. Her fear was subsiding, and her survival instincts and nerve were welling up from her soul.

She kept Blake’s gun in hand, pointed it ahead, tracking along with wherever she turned. It had been quiet with no new threats or surprises for several minutes, maybe even longer than she presumed. Her mind still raced with all the events and the fact that she was still in the middle of a dark unknown, in the center of nowhere.

Dani reflected on the fact she had just lost a man she’d thought she’d fallen in love with, albeit in a very short time. They’d only known each other for less than six months. After a first major event with him, she’d now questioned her judgment along with who he really was after the first sign of danger. He’d brought out the worst in her. Self-doubt, fear, helplessness,  had awakened a serious question. But he then began to draw her back into his good side causing her to see the things that had attracted her to him in the beginning. He’d shown so much promise at first, and then, BAM!

The choice to continue or insert their relationship into the proverbial hangman’s noose was instantly stolen from her. Swallowed up by a creature so unbelievable that she herself doubted its authenticity. One large shiver pulsed down her spine as her body twitched and shuddered at the recollection of the horrible scene that took place before her eyes. He was practically jerked from her hands just moments before they were going to kiss.

Her body quivered again, and she suddenly felt naked without a flashlight. She felt watched…stalked like prey caught in the sight of something dark and hungry, slithering through the grass and twigs just outside of the illumination of her light’s beam. The stars were shining from a clear sky, but not enough to emblazon the shadowy landscape on either side of the road she now traveled.

Pulling Blake’s bag from her shoulder, she unzipped it, reaching inside for Blake’s flashlight. She felt a couple of magazines for the handgun and pulled them out. Yes, fully stacked—she stuck them in her front pocket, easily accessible if needed. She turned the Maglite on after replacing the bag back over her shoulder, Glock Slim G36 in her waistband, Glock G21 in her other hand, tracking the beam of light with the barrel, like the television cops do. Like Blake had shown her.

She always knew he was heavily driven by sex, but he did share most of the things she loved also. And she thoroughly enjoyed making love to him. It hurt to know he really hadn’t wanted to take this trip. He’d known how she wanted to start doing dark tours of ghostly sites since they’d met. She’d been with friends discussing them at the local bar when he popped over to say hello to a mutual acquaintance. Sites like Helltown were scattered all over the country. The internet was overloaded with different towns and states with secret little hell holes of legend and lore. Even Blake’s friend sounded knowledgeable of some.

The Joplin Spook Light was the culprit that ensnared Dani’s interest at an early age. She’d only been sixteen when she snuck away with friends in the middle of the night to travel sixty-some miles to witness the odd glowing orb bounce around the old empty farm road close to the Missouri-Oklahoma border. The moment it appeared from out of nowhere, it grabbed and held her attention. She couldn’t believe such things really existed in this world. There certainly must be an alternate universe that connected with ours at special places across the planet. Places where the spirit world and this tangible world shared the same space.

At the Spook Light site, the magical, unexplainable brightly lit ball of color danced its way from the distance until it was inches before her eyes—the odd feeling it gave her as it passed through her body in seconds and then disappeared, didn’t scare her, but instead empowered her. She’d never witnessed anything like it before and when she turned, the orb was there again in front. Her friends had screamed, “Run!” as they all scurried back towards the car. She stood entranced by the experience. The oddity of it all, from that point on, was inside her soul. She’d always wanted more. The others called her crazy when she came back to the car, but they wanted to hear her story. What did she feel? Did she feel like she was magic, or made foreign from the alien?

Tonight, her first feeling was that she’d gotten more than she’d bargained for. When Blake was snagged away in such an unimaginable and horrific way, it scared the shit out of her. But it also woke up the orb inside her heart.

Memories can bring weakness—or conjure internal strength. Tonight, she chose strength. She would live. She’d taken action to see to it. She also wouldn’t give up on adventure. What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger…makes you hunger for more. She kept a steady pace down the eerie, lonesome road. Dani kept her roving light beam changing the unknown darkness into brightly lit objects with deep shadows behind, as her courage grew in strength. Her fear became intrigue. The unknown was morphing into the desire to conquer. She wouldn’t be found cowering in a tree or crying for help under a porch any longer. Never again would she hide in those shadows that she would no longer retreat to.

I am strength. I alone am a survivor of all. I’ll not surrender until the last drop of my blood is spilled on the soil below me, and then I’ll empty my weapon as I fall to my knees. These were the internal thoughts that battled and defeated the ones that would have her crumble helplessly and concede to cowardice.

Chapter 10: Reborn-Dani’s New Perspective

They say when one’s spirit is reborn, a sharp burning sensation is felt deep within. Well, one can only imagine the inferno raging inside Dani’s heart and soul at this moment. Her mind had been bombarded from every direction, from the thrill of adventure, to the horror of watching the man she loved, disappear before her eyes. He’d been stolen from her in the most violent of ways. She ran the gamut of emotion, and everything in between had either tickled or stabbed at her psyche in the last several hours. Betrayal, fear, question, love, death….

Dani’s insides were too deeply scarred to ever allow her to forget tonight. Her inner mind was battling her beliefs and self-worth. Her consciousness had either ignored or was simply oblivious to these thoughts before. She was far too tortured and controlled by what she’d witnessed and experienced to fully comprehend what was happening. Dani struggled to think clearly, but she suddenly felt that whatever that spook light was that she’d witnessed nine years ago, had always laid dormant, nestled deep into hibernation within her being. But now? Now it had been awoken, possibly by the ravenous fear she’d absorbed tonight. She felt like this unknown life force, if that was what it was, now gave her the power to take control of her previously unrevealed destiny. Her future would no longer be lost to chance by the toss of the dice. She was not only in control over that voracious fear within, but she had taken total control of it. She was now fully alive and transformed into a new being of sorts, like a superhero. She’d somehow “leveled up in the game of life.”

“I am reborn! I feel the power and strength of a hundred seasoned warriors have been awoken inside of me,” she said to herself. Her words were spoken aloud, as if to internally bang the drums of victory with the thunder she felt. She was anything but drunk with a placebo of courage—instead, she became the entire meaning of the word, courage. Dani now knew she could face any battle without retreat. Her heart pounded harder at the mere thought, pumping faster, as if it was what drove the raging grandeur now searing through her veins.

Dani turned to take notice of the position the flickering lights held. Had the zombies been foolish enough to follow her still? Yes, they were still trailing. She drew a breath and placed her hand holding the Maglite close to her chest. Nestled next to her heart, its beam brightened. It was a sign from God.

No one would ever believe her story, and she felt a searing heat like Joan of Arc must have endured at the stake. This would be a tale to carry silently within.  Any slip of the tongue about tonight—and the world beyond would sedate her with Thorazine and lock her away in a padded room for fear she was too dangerous—to herself or to them.

She pointed the light beam in the direction she’d turned—facing her pursuers. Dani felt a “pop” within her chest, much like the sound produced when the release of pressure from removing the lid off a jar containing, preserved fruit. What followed was…unexplainable.

That orb from so many years ago, “popped” from her chest and began dancing down the darkened road, much like the old farm road it had first appeared on. Its core spun in beautiful endless circles of twisted beams of colored light. The sphere moved like a beacon in front of her, guiding the path toward the battle she would now meet head-on. Dani’s heart pumped harder, deeper, and more rhythmic than she had ever noticed before. Her chest pounded with every bounce of that orb as it danced before her eyes. And in an instant, she knew what it was communicating to her. “Kill your fears tonight. Slay the mutant zombies with vengeance.” Dani spoke the words aloud as if responding in unison to a collective voice of an army. An overwhelming smile spread across her face, reaching her eyes. She knew what she was destined to do. Dani then spoke five simple words before she began marching forward, following the lead of the shining globe toward the enemy and the field where combat was about to take place.

“This is for us, Blake.”

Chapter 11: The Final Conflict

The line of black silhouettes toting their lit torches of taunting flames began to close in. As Dani and the enemy drew nearer to one another, their line began to tighten. Outer black mutant combatants began moving closer to the center as if they knew they were preparing to battle an army of only one. She tried to count the dark shadows and concluded there were at least twenty, maybe more. The night was still too dark to be certain, even though the sun was on the cusp of showing its face. It seemed as if even the earth’s ball of light wanted to rise early enough to witness the event about to take place.

The backpack on her shoulder dropped to the ground as she stood close enough to see the red gleam in their eyes. When the beam of light crossed the first target’s shiny slits, she noticed it reacted as if it had burned, but its pain became instantly nullified when she fired her first aggressive round into its head. The .45 ACP round caused a small explosion of reddish mist, filling the air around it. The unfortunate recipient became the first casualty of war and tumbled forward into the dark, shadowy ground. No reason not to throw the first proverbial punch, Dani thought as she squeezed a second round which traveled quickly and penetrated the head of the shadow next to the first fallen dark fucker. Another explosion of zombie brain matter erupted from the side of its face before it too toppled to the ground, tripping the next one. Loud cracks were followed by more liquid blowouts as bodies fell to the now blood-soaked ground. Dani began to methodically move the muzzle of her weapon down the line, striking one after the other in its head and onto the next, like shooting ducks lined up in a pond. Working back and forth from left to right and then reversing. It was as if she couldn’t miss, each round finding its target and popping skulls like dime-store balloons splattering bright, crimson red confetti raining down its wetness all around her.

The closer she came to the enemy, the stronger the stench of toxic rot became, quickly overtaking the air. The cloud hovering overhead caused Dani’s eyes to sting, but she remained vigilant in her assault, never ceasing a second from pulling the trigger. The black faceless goons continued to fall against each other, spilling their bloody goo before stumbling clumsily to the ground. She hadn’t counted her shots, but instinctively dropped the Maglite, now close enough to see without it, spontaneously drawing another magazine of rounds from her pocket. Before the handgun clicked empty and the receiver hung open, she ejected the nearly spent magazine, leaving one in the chamber, and quickly inserted the next, never missing the rhythm of a missed round and another dropped mutant.

The orb continued to bounce across the battlefield as if it were directing the scene like a bandleader would conduct his orchestra, enjoying every deadly kill as if it were a spectacular note hit in perfection. As she turned to continue playing her instrument, the odor became stronger of spent powder and rotting death, giving the incentive to finish the masterpiece even quicker. She upped the speed up the tempo’s aggression, killing zombies at even a faster rate, driving the finish of the concert toward a quickened end with gusto.

In one stroke of motion, she again reloaded as fluidly as a violinist draws a sweet note with their horsehair bow being pulled across the strings. The scene was horrific and beautiful at the same time. Dani knew Blake and her father would be proud of her performance, somehow wishing they were both in Heaven’s balcony, watching her virtuoso from box seats.

The time went by in slow motion to her, but the finale ended as the last round in the Glock left its barrel and entered the final aggressor’s head, sending him bobbling to the ground in a drum roll. The Glock’s slide now hanging open in her hand as she readied herself to take a bow. As if called back for an encore, a head slowly lifted from the battlefield and Dani walked over, reaching for the second weapon from her waist and lowering its muzzle to the enemy’s dark, moist face. The sound of a quick double-tap ended the show with a spray of back splatter reddening Dani’s soiled white tank top. A single bead of sweat rolled down to the tip of Dani’s nose before plunging off in a swan dive and onto the smoldering battlefield to a sizzle.

It was done. Her concerto was complete. She stood and surveyed the grounds with pride and swore there was light applause from two spectators from up above.

The sun peeked out with a slight hint of its light as Dani continued down the lone road toward home. She didn’t know where or how long her walk would take her as the morning began to quietly whisper its entrance. She noticed a faded black iron entryway and gate up ahead with various sized headstones in mixed subtle colors rising from the ground below. It was the cemetery. She and Blake had somehow driven past it without taking notice as they’d hurried, filled with the excitement of arriving at Helltown early last evening.  A lot had happened since then. A lifetime in a mere single night.

Walking past the gate, Dani glanced over and sure enough, there was the old man apparition wandering around the cemetery, as legend was written. Walking with no apparent cause, barely visible in its hazy silhouette. It wasn’t fear that drew her hand to the butt of the gun tucked back neatly in her waistband behind her, she’d conquered that old adversary. It was a new instinct; memory muscle, a habit she wasn’t even aware she’d obtained.

Dani watched the old ghost moving around with inconsistency as if he were looking for something he’d lost, maybe a spouse or good friend. That’s when she noticed her orb bouncing around within the stone monuments. Had it found its home too? She stopped for a moment and as the sun crested the horizon, bringing light and color to the world once again. She instantly heard that now familiar “pop” sound. As the orb touched the apparition while it was almost seated on a bench—they both vanished at once, just before a single beam of the sun’s light could bridge a connection with them. In that nanosecond of an instant…Dani knew her dark adventure had drawn to a close. A feeling of complete calm fell over her and an extreme sense of accomplishment brought any sense of fear and snuffed it out like wind to the candle’s flame. Woosh.

The sound of a motor hummed in the distance, and Dani stood near the cemetery’s entrance as a vehicle of some sort made its way over several slight inclines. Peeking its head over the top briefly as it broached the peak, and then disappearing again as it recessed into a valley until the next hill. Blurred from afar but gaining clarity as it came closer.

The small bus finally crested the last rise in the road but then slowed to a snail’s pace as it cautiously drove past. Five or six sets of eyes filled with inquisitive but hesitant apprehension, peered through the slightly tinted windows. As the passenger van eased on by, Dani couldn’t believe what she saw emblazoned on its white side panel as it passed. The words did, however, bring another huge smile to her face as she read them, feeling a small sense of connection to her fiancé….


Rating: 9.14/10. From 7 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Eli Pope
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Eli Pope

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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