The Last Candlelight
Haddock was always a lonely place. Vernon knew that when he and May moved there in the last days of 1976 to run a hobby ranch. He preferred it. Los Angeles’ concrete monoliths of urban housing had closed in on him, and the moment they crossed the state line into Idaho, May saw the weight lift off his shoulders.
“I feel like I can breathe again,” He’d told her, and she nodded, and he knew she felt it too.
He worried amid the crowded commute, and the blank expressions of drones she passed as she went to work each morning were malevolent eyes watching her. In the city, predators could hide among the masses in plain sight, but here on the prairie lands, they were spotted from miles away.
Except for the one that came to Haddock in the early months of 2020 under the guise of a vaccination against a virus. And like all deadly things, it approached quietly at first.
Vernon woke Bud from his slumber on the corduroy couch in the darkened living room by handing him a mug of coffee.
“How’s your head?” He asked as Bud slowly sat and sipped. Vernon slumped down in a Lazy-boy across from him.
“Hurts like hell. How’s your hand?”
Vernon glanced at the Ace bandage wrapped around his left hand, held in place with a thick rubber band, the pain had subsided but he knew stitches would be needed or infection would set in eventually.
“It’ll mend better if we go to urgent care. Could drive down to Caldwell if you want. We could
leave the whole mess altogether.”
“We have business to take care of here first.” Vernon said, his eyes boring holes into the blank wall over the fireplace mantle. A faint outline of a picture frame still hung there, a ghost of a memory Vernon had locked away over a year ago. “I want to check the pasture before we head into town. Check the fences.”
“I think your boundaries are probably the least of your worries, Vern.” Bud said as he stood and stretched. “If we’re going to finish things up we need to get over to Tex’s Tack and Feed, assuming the place isn’t already ransacked.”
“It’ll hold. We got six hours of daylight to get it done, and my eyes need to confirm what my gut is telling me.”
“Shit, Vern, if you didn’t get enough of a confirmation last night I don’t know what else it will take.”
“Call me stubborn.” Vernon stood up and grabbed his jacket from a wall hook. “Don’t forget your shotgun.”
The drive out to the back pasture was quiet. Darkness lay thick on the western range, suffocating any hint of light from a hundred small windows of homes dotting the rolling hills like candles on posts and hiding the world from view.
From the passenger seat of Vernon’s beat-up Ford, Bud watched for any movement or shadows in the fog as they made their way down the dirt trail. He opened the glove box, and several unspent shotgun shells rolled onto the floor.
“Take em’ all.” Vernon said, and Bud nodded as he stuffed them into his jacket pocket. “Check under the seat for the .357’s I got, while you’re at it.”
Bud glanced at the Smith & Wesson revolver holstered at Vernon’s side. The echo of its hammer cracks still lingered in his mind. Haddock’s town center had turned into a shooting range just seven hours prior. Festive lights that canopied the walkways and creek that ran through the heart of the town’s annual winter wonderland now lay shattered in pools of blood.
Round after round of shell casings rolled across the outdoor ice rink’s surface as they slowly made their way to its center, careful not to lose their balance as they fired. The predators that forced them there had not taken the slippery surface into account and made for easy targets as they scrambled across it to devour them.
But they were drones at this point. Strategy probably didn’t register in their minds—only insatiable hunger reflected in their soulless white eyes.
The Queen, however, would be a different story.
Vernon slowed the truck as it approached the pasture gate. The lock and chain had been ripped away. The gate splayed open, and Vernon saw a stampede of shoe prints in the mud.
“They’ve been here then,” Vernon sighed. “Shit.”
Vernon put the truck back into gear and rolled it forward, watching the fence line on his left as he drove. It led them a mile across the uneven ground until its lines broke away. Vernon pulled his keys from the ignition, closed his eyes, and listened.
The faint bleat of a calf sounded across the moor. He pulled out his revolver, checking to ensure it was loaded, and nodded at Bud.
“This won’t be pretty.”
Bud followed Vernon through the fog until they came across a tangle of barbed wire wrapped around a half-devoured cow and its shivering calf.
“They did all this and didn’t finish the little one?” Bud shook his head.
The calf’s neck was wrapped in metal thorns, and the weight of its mother half crushed its body.
“Probably more trouble than it was worth,” Vernon said as he kneeled and gently tried to uncoil the wire from the calf’s side. It bleated again.
“Was that May’s?” Bud motioned to the open rib cage and gore at Vernon’s side.
“Yeah. Daisy. May had the idea we’d have fresh milk every morning. But shoveling shit was never her thing, and then, well, you know….”
Vernon pulled at the wire, but its tail dug deeper into the calf’s neck, like an anaconda squeezing the life from a child. The calf bleated desperately.
“Goddamnit!” Vernon spat and leaned back on his haunches.
“I forgot the wire cutters, Vern. Sorry, I just-”
Vernon pulled out his revolver and shot the calf in the head. Bud saw his hands tremble as he holstered his gun. Vernon looked away and rubbed his eyes, barely holding back the cracks in his voice.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” Vernon said as he pulled a deep breath and steadied himself.
“She doesn’t need to know about this, on top of everything else going on. Daisy was one of the few good things left.”
“I don’t think she’s going to mind, boss. She’s in a better place, just her body is….”
“Damned.” Vernon shook his head, “Along with everyone else.”
Bud nodded and whispered. “Maybe so. But maybe it’s different with her. May was already gone, long before Newston came to town.”
Vernon nodded. He’d hold onto that hope for now. There was nothing else to grasp. He motioned for Budd to follow him back to the truck. “Let’s get this business settled.”
As Vernon pulled the truck back onto highway 95 and headed north into the Haddock Township, he remembered the first day he’d seen Doctor Newston set up a clinic at the abandoned Gimbles storefront on Main Street.
Before Newston’s arrival, locals were forced to drive two hours south to reach the nearest vaccination center. Lockdown restrictions changed weekly, and food shortages on the store shelves made town officials eager to welcome a local solution to some of their problems. The C.D.C. sending one of its own to combat the pandemic was seen as a God-send.
Until the vaccinated found themselves sicker. Newston was tall, thin, and sported an easy smile that made folks a bit less guarded. Only his hands seemed off, they were somehow paler than the rest of him, he kept his nails long. His easy smile only broadened as patients returned to complain about lethargy, acute stomach pain, and rashes that became inflamed in the sunlight.
“All understandable, all minor discomforts that will abate with a booster when it’s widely available.” He’d assured them. “Just do your part, and make sure others do theirs.”
So the police chief, the mayor, and the local paper capitulated, closing down public discussions deemed misinformation, and kept as many as possible separated and silent.
And slowly, over six months, Vernon saw Haddock’s bustling burg turn silent. Save for the few holdouts like him, the outliers. Busy city streets, usually filled with voices, footfalls, and idling engines, now only called out solitary clicks of traffic light changes. Store windows were boarded up one after the other and always at night.
But it wasn’t until late November that Vernon worried. He’d pulled into the Hathway Green’s Care Home parking lot, flowers in hand. He pushed past the double glass door while donning his mask to find the day nurse at the front counter was gone.
The usually busy open living spaces, complete with books, tables, and a buffet counter, were dusty and quiet as a tomb. The hallways leading to May’s room were empty.
With slight hesitation, Vernon knocked, and the door opened to darkness and a chill that hung in the air. He replaced the old flowers at May’s bedside and pulled back the curtains. Hoping to bring some light and life back into the room. He checked the oxygen tank next to May’s bed and adjusted the cannulas leading to her nose before sitting in a chair nearby. May moaned for a time until Vernon held her hand in a way only they knew, and she settled.
“Honey, you look poorly. I know I’m not supposed to say that but are you getting enough sleep?”
May didn’t respond, and he didn’t expect her to. The conversations had been one-way for over a year.
“I brought on a new hand, he’s a greenhorn but he’s a good kid, served in Afghanistan.” Vernon said and brushed a lock of her hair from her face before continuing. “Nice to have some help again. I’m letting him stay in the guest room, but don’t worry he doesn’t get your seat at the table.”
Vernon looked out the window at the empty streets. Only the wind brushing the bare trees showed any sign of life.
“They say this thing is going to wind down soon,” Vernon continued as he spotted a bandaid on her shoulder. “But they say a lot of things. You and I both know half of it is bullshit.”
May moaned again, and Vernon watched as her arm became red in the sunlight. He quickly turned and drew the curtain closed before pushing the nurse call button by her bedside. After several minutes a voice called from the doorway. Vernon took a step back as Dr. Newston approached, wearing a lab coat and a mask.
“Mister…” Newston tilted his head as he asked.
“Smit, Vern Smit,” Vernon said and felt the hair on his neck raise as Newston repeated his name.
“Vernon Smit, of course. Loving husband to May Smit. Our sleeping beauty.”
“She looks sick. Where’s the nurse?”
“Nurses. All taking sick leave, unfortunately. We’re short-staffed as you can imagine. Tell me Mr. Smit, have you been vaccinated?”
Vernon eyed him. “I’m fine. I’m healthy. I got no signs of it if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“Not what I asked,” Newston hissed, and for a moment, Vernon thought he saw the outline of sharpened teeth beneath the doctor’s mask. “Regulations here say no contact unless you’ve been vaccinated. So sorry.”
“I didn’t give you permission to jab her, bub, I think that’s a regulation too.”
“I’ll have to ask you to leave,” Newston replied coldly, and his eyes flashed a sickly yellow hue.
Vernon would have tackled him then and there, but the quiet voice in him, the one that sounded like May, told him to walk away.
Voicemails requesting transfers were never responded to, and within two weeks, Vernon was about to head back, revolver in hand, ready to pull her out himself, and then the world shifted again - the night Vernon questioned if God even existed.
“We’re here,” Bud’s voice brought Vernon back to the present. Like the pasture gate, the tack and feed store’s doors were ripped from the hinges, but few goods were splayed across the floor.
Whatever had forced its way into the shop hadn’t found what it was looking for, something alive.
Vernon and Bud slowly entered the store, guns drawn, and checked each aisle until they found the fertilizer.
“You sure you know how to make this shit?” Vernon asked as Bud studied the labels.
“I diffused enough I.E.D.s to know we need plenty of calcium-ammonium nitrate, and this should do the job. We’ll grab some gas cans, bottled water, and mercury fulminate for the blasting caps and we’re good.”
Vernon returned to the store entrance with an empty shopping cart. Within ten minutes, the two had the needed supplies. Vernon left an I.O.U. on a slip of paper at the register.
“What’s the point?” Bud laughed as Vernon gingerly signed the note.
“The world won’t always be a shit hole, Bud - at some point people have to start acting like people again.”
Bud shook his head as he pushed the laden cart of homemade explosives out the door. Vernon didn’t mind. It was easy to forget what they were fighting to protect, especially when they were engulfed in horror and ruin, but even in the present darkness, some tiny bit of light needed to stay lit, like a porch light beckoning the lost home.
The sun had partially broken through the fog, but Vernon knew they only had fours of light at best. The night of chaos had burned half the town to the ground. There were more outliers than Dr. Newston had expected, and it had cost him dearly.
Like a pack of wolves hunting cattle, the turned had quietly surrounded homes and piled into them to rip the remaining men, women, and children apart while they slept. But too many of their prey had been waiting with arms, and as gunfire echoed across town, more of the living were alerted.
Some fought off Dr. Newston’s pets with bullets, others tried stakes, but the fire seemed the most prudent and permanent solution. And when backed into corners, some chose to burn rather than turn.
There was little cover to hide in now, save for the old Keeling Coal mine east of town and, of course, the nursing home.
“Can you process this crap fast enough?” Vernon asked as he pulled his truck up to the entrance of the mine shaft.
“I brought my electric boilerplate and adapter - just leave the truck running,” Bud replied, “And start emptying those water bottles into the can.”
Vernon stood back as he watched Bud distill what would become a fiery end to the disease in Haddock, but like the barbed line on the calf’s throat, it would be painful to watch. He didn’t want to know how many of his neighbors were sleeping fitfully in the dark mine shafts below his feet. Maybe some part of them wanted to die. Maybe, like May, they were trapped in a prison of flesh and bone.
He only knew that come sunset; they would awaken with ravenous hunger and spread their poison faster than any man-made virus could.
At Bud’s direction, Vernon helped carry the tightly packed plastic cans of explosives several hundred feet into the mine shaft, lining them next to outcroppings of raw coal in the walls. With any luck, the mines would burn for days before the oxygen was eaten by the flames.
Vernon stopped dead as he saw a young boy with pale skin stand a few feet before him. His white eyes were open, staring at the dirt near his feet. Only the slight quiver of his hands as he stood, betrayed his breath.
Vernon carefully set down the explosive and backed away before hurrying for the daylight. A long fuse line followed Vernon’s feet out of the main entrance and twenty feet back. Bud nodded at the truck.
“You’re going to want to have that running and ready - we’ll have about 40 seconds til it hits the first one.”
It was only thirty seconds and a sixteenth of a mile when the shock wave hit the truck, forcing Vernon to fight the steering wheel to stay on the road. The explosion resounded for minutes across the hills, and Vernon knew that Dr. Newston had felt it somewhere.
After several minutes of silent driving, Vernon pulled the truck off at an abandoned Shell station.
“We still got a gas can?” he asked Bud as he put on the emergency brake.
“Yeah,” Bud said and sighed, “You want some reserve to top it off? Or are we taking care of the other problem?”
“Two birds,” Vernon mumbled.
“Right. I guess I can figure out how to open the spout inside.” Bud said and kicked open the passenger door.
The light was fading, and Vernon knew they would only have the remains of the day to clean the last stain, but he was desperate. He couldn’t leave her there - even after the night she came calling.
Brownouts were rolling through the county daily, so when the internet was up, Bud was on it - scouring news stories for answers, checking forums for clues, and scanning social media for those who understood what was happening.
“You go in there, gun drawn and they’ll lock you up.” Bud said over his shoulder as he scrolled text across his laptop screen.
“They can try.” Vernon said as he loaded the pistol, “May always said I was as stubborn as a stump when an idea rooted in my head.”
“I’m not seeing the kind of symptoms everyone has anywhere else, Vern.” Bud said as he scanned another article, “It’s like we got some kind of localized strain of bug.”
“Doesn’t surprise me too much - that Newston fella from the C.D.C. doesn’t talk like a bureacrat, my guess is he’s not.”
“What’re you saying?” Bud turned to face him, “Haddock’s some kind of case study for the government in all this? You sound like a conspiracy nut.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Vernon rubbed his chin, “But them Tuskegee fellas probably sounded the same.”
“Do me a favor then.” Bud stood and put his hand on Vernon’s shoulder. “Sleep on it. We can probably call the main office in D.C. tomorrow and find out if this guy is licensed. Maybe we can get someone to listen.”
Vernon glanced at the door, placed his pistol on a side table, and slumped down into his Lazy-Boy.
“That’s the kinda shit May would probably say too.”
“Well then, follow it.” Bud said and sat again. He watched him before asking, “How’d you two meet anyway?”
“Oh, she worked at an Orange Julius back in the day. I used to stop by and order a drink just so I could talk her up. Til I finally got the balls to ask her out.”
“Where’d you go for your first date?”
“Some run-down mini-golf spot in Pacoima. Only had seven holes, and God-awful food, but we closed the place down talking and laughing. ” Vernon smiled as he remembered. “Found out later she was gonna cancel on me but I didn’t leave my number with her - so she had to show up.”
“Strategy,” Bud laughed. “I like it.”
A cold wind howled outside, chased by sleet and snow as night fell.
“Yeah, this old noggin can perform when it needs to.” Vernon looked over their living room,
“Coming here was the best tactical move we ever made though. We both grew up on farms, so buying thirty acres felt like coming home.”
Bud nodded at the framed silhouette on the wall. “My guess is she was the house cleaner though.”
“Some memories aren’t worth keeping,” Vernon said as a broken smile spread across his face.
“We had a loss, Ty, would’ve been about your age now I guess.”
Bud looked away before catching Vernon’s gaze, “How?”
“S.I.D.S - or something like it. Doctors didn’t know. Couldn’t say. Sorta left us hollowed out. Distant from each other, and feeling alone.” Vernon chewed on his words before speaking again, “Best medicine we had was getting out of the city - and making our own little place where we could see the world coming.”
“Then…dementia.” Bud said and whistled.
“After I put May in at Hathway Green I took the family photo down. I didn’t need the reminder of what took him, or what was eating her from the inside out.”
“Maybe it’s good it still stings, boss,” Bud said quietly, “Maybe it’s a reminder it was real.”
“Maybe, Bud. Except the night she forgot my name.”
“Vern.” the whispered voice came from the window and instantly sent a chill through both men.
Vernon slowly turned to see May paw at the window. A thin veil of snow covered her head and nightgown, and dead white eyes peered at him. “Let us in, sweet. We have such wonderful things to show you.”
Bud fell from his seat and screamed. Vernon stood and rushed to the window. The thing looked like May and sounded like her, but any semblance of her spirit was gone. As if she were on invisible strings, like a living marionette.
Something in Vernon wanted to open the windows and let her embrace him, but May’s quiet voice in his mind told him, “no.”
Dr. Newston’s voice called from just beyond the front door, “She’s home Mr. Smit, let her in. This is your only invitation. All you have to do is open the door.”
Vernon reached for the doorknob until Bud slapped his hand away.
“The hell you will!” Bud shook him, and Vernon’s will refocused.
“Vern,” her blue lips uttered, “such wonderful things for you, and I’m so cold.”
“Get-Get the hell out of here. You’re not-not her.” Vernon said.
May screamed as she clawed at the window. A flurry of snow surrounded her, and she was gone.
“What in the fuck was that?” Bud gasped.
They both stared at the whirling snow for several moments before Vernon finally spoke.
“I don’t think this thing is just a virus - and Newston sure as shit ain’t a doctor.”
“We-we gotta call the cops, the army, we got some supernatural shit going on here,” Bud said and gulped. “We gotta-”
“Sit tight.” Vernon said as he peered into the darkness and listened.
In the distance a howl echoed, followed by a chorus of others. Vernon knew these wolves moved on two legs.
“You take a step out that door before daylight and those things will eat you alive. My guess is the phone is gone too.”
Bud reached for the cordless receiver by the couch and found only silence answered. For a week they waited, listened to footsteps race across their roof and whispers beckon to them from the shadows each night.
Like the sun that hid behind the mist, even the faltering power failed to keep the lights on. When the last scrap of pasta had been eaten and the last can of beans had been cooked, Vernon knew it was time to push back.
“They’re quieter during the day, maybe asleep.” Bud mused as he sat in his Lazyboy, revolver in hand. “We could make a break for it.”
They’d made it as far as the Snake River Bridge. The remains of its steel pillars had been crumpled like paper, and just beyond the chasm was the only road to civilization.
Turning back Vernon knew Dr. Newston was watching and as a white sheen of snow blinded their course home, he swore shadows of men, women, and children followed them at a distance.
Then something finally snapped in Vernon and the fear he felt turned to anger. Two hours later found him shaking amid groaning bodies piled around the town’s ice skating rink.
Bud finished filling the gas can as Vernon topped off the truck.
“You leave a note?” Vernon asked as he put the nozzle back in its’ holster.
Bud smiled, “Yeah - though Iike a damn idiot writing it.”
“Just a little candlelight shines a long way, Bud.”
“Well, it’s not gonna shine away nightfall, or whatever else these things are going to throw at us.”
Bud said as he loaded the gas can into the back of the truck. “We need to firebomb that care center and get the hell out of Dodge.”
“One explosive ain’t enough to do it, though, Bud. Unless the walls are lined with coal. Someone’s going to need to open some oxygen tanks before they light the match.”
“You really think Newston is there? Maybe he got burned up last night in the fighting - maybe he was down in the mine.”
“You really think a top C.O. sleeps with the troops?” Vernon said as he started the truck up.
Bud looked away, “No, not usually.”
Snow flurried around the pair as they pulled into the care center parking lot. Behind draped windows, Vernon saw silhouetted figures stirring.
“They’re waking up. We gotta be fast.” Vernon pulled the gas can out and carried it through the front doors while Bud followed him in, shotgun ready to fire.
As Vernon poured a slick of gasoline across the furniture and tables, a shadowed figure emerged from the hallway screaming. Bud blasted it back into the hallway.
Four more shadows howled as they raced down a hallway toward the pair. Vernon grabbed a metal chair and swung it into one of them. Teeth and blood fell to the carpet as the figure crumpled to the ground. The other three were quicker and surrounded Vernon before he could think to pull his gun. Bud’s shotgun blasts left empty space where their heads once were.
“Christ almighty,” Vernon said and dropped the chair. “I’m going to have nightmares for years after this.”
“I don’t think I’ll be sleeping at all,” Bud replied as he loaded fresh cartridges into his shotgun.
Vernon pulled his revolver from his holster with one hand while he poured more gas down a carpeted hallway. Figures appeared at each doorway and were instantly met with a bullet sending them crashing backward.
“Tanks in there.” Vernon nodded past the sprawled figure in the bedroom, struggling to stand again. Bud ran in and yanked an oxygen tank lever, letting a familiar hiss of air fill the room before scrambling out again.
Five rooms were soon filled with wounded predators and concentrated oxygen before they came to May’s. Vernon kicked open the door to find an empty bed. He glanced around the corner of a closet before slowly entering, dumping the last gasoline on her bed. Bud backed into the room, covering the door with his shotgun.
“She’s not here. He must’ve taken her somewhere else or….”
A slight hiss echoed above their heads.
Vernon looked up and saw May on all fours peering down at him from the ceiling. She fell on him, tackled him to the ground, and ripped into his neck. A blast resounded, and her body was thrown against the wall.
Bud cocked his shotgun as the last spent cartridge fell to the floor. “Jesus, Vern, you okay?”
Vern coughed up blood as he held his neck and slowly stood. “It’ll mend.”
“Fuck it will,” Bud said as he checked the chamber of his rifle. “I’m out.”
“Then it’s time you head out.” Vernon nodded at the window, and Bud rushed forward to open it.
He quickly jostled out the screen before straddling through the window to the snow-covered lawn.
“Hand me the gun, and I’ll cover you,” Bud said as he reached through the window.
Vernon tossed him his truck keys. “You’re fired, Bud. Get out of here.”
“Don’t do this Vern, there no damn reason-”
“I’m bleeding out here, Bud - besides, I think we both know May needs me here right now.”
Vernon looked down at his wife. Her form slowly pawed at the ground and labored with breath.
“She’s gone boss - you gotta see that.” Bud pleaded.
“As long as some part of her is still breathing I gotta tend to her, even if it’s just long enough to put her to rest.”
“And Newston? What about that son-of-a-bitch? You gonna let him off?”
“You can’t rope every stray, Bud, sometimes you gotta focus on just the one. You find a way out of this darkness - drive, walk, swim whatever. Just carry that light we talked about.”
Bud handed Vernon his lighter, and Vernon passed him his revolver. The two stared at each other without another word as Vernon lowered and locked the window again.
Bud ran for the truck as a fireball exploded out of the glass, reverberating destruction through the building.
As Bud left Haddock in his rearview mirror, he said goodbye to his friend and wondered if that roman candle that consumed the darkness around him would burn until morning.
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Glen GabelWrite a Review