To say it had been a long day was an understatement. The morning jog up and down the stairs seemed like a distant memory to Jessie.
Hell, it’s nearly morning again.
Jessie had been back at her apartment for hours, but bed still hadn’t tempted her. She was wide awake. Staring out at the starlit sky through her murky window. Sleep as distant to her as the bright pinpoints of light in the black sky.
The doorbell rang.
Who the Hell is that?
She moved to the window and lifted the curtain a few inches, peering down into the street below. It was darker than she was used to, the streetlights spread out more than they were in Washington. But Jessie could easily make out the white pickup with its red and blue bulbs on top. The sheriff’s car.
‘Tom?’ she asked, breathless, as she opened the front door.
It had been a mad dash. Running a brush through her tangled hair, checking her face for signs of tiredness and bolting down the stairs. She didn’t know where the idea had come from. It was absurd, but she was sure she knew why he’d come.
He’s going to ask me out. Why now? I must be losing it. I need sleep. But why else is he here?
‘Evening Jessie.’ His eyes shifted to her sweats, no doubt wondering why she hadn’t dressed up. She was thinking the same thing. ‘Are you ok to go for a drive in those?’
‘Yeah, sure.’ A drive? What does he think we are, a couple of college kids? ‘Where are we going?’
‘The funeral home up by the old creek.’
That threw her off. She guessed it was a while since Tom last asked a lady out for the evening. Funeral homes didn’t exactly fit with her idea of romance. Then again, it was a damned century since she last had a date.
Jessie could have kicked herself to death, thrown her body in a ditch and lit it on fire. She felt like that much of a fool.
They stopped on the way to grab two large cups of coffee and the first sip had barely kicked her in the teeth before she was flushing ruby red with embarrassment. No, she wasn’t just embarrassed. She was dead mortified.
Idiot. The sheriff knocks you up in the dead of night and offers to drive you down to the morgue. It’s not a damn date, it’s a crime.
Until then she had been all sweetness, tossing her hair like a preppy teen in a cheap romance flick. When the penny dropped at last, Jessie ran the caffeine down her throat like a fiend shooting smack and let the buzz fuel the most professional, chilling attitude a small town sheriff ever saw.
‘Well, Tom,’ she said, her tone pure ice, hating that they were already on a first-name basis and she couldn’t revert back to calling him sheriff. ‘I guess there’s been an important development.’
To her mixed relief, he seemed to relax in response to her rediscovered professionalism. She could see the tension go out of his shoulders and he let one hand slip off the steering wheel, coming to rest against the driver’s side window.
‘Yeah, you could say that.’
What’s that voice about? He’s all business, thank God, but there’s something else under there. Excitement? Curiosity? He’s like the guy who knows what’s on the lunch menu and makes the other kids in the playground try to guess.
‘It’s to do with Melcom?’
He grunted, shifting in his seat and gripping the wheel with both hands again. Jessie tried to figure out how her question had touched a nerve. The thought shocked her, but she wondered if he had some darker motive for dragging her out of bed. Not a date. Something more sinister.
This same itch at the nape of her neck kept worrying her as they parked and walked up to the funeral home’s wide, carved oak doors. It made her wish she’d worn something more professional, though the revolver tucked into the waistband of her sweats was a certain comfort.
I’m not getting caught unarmed again, whatever’s going on here.
Jessie believed there were a few rare moments in life when you clapped eyes on someone and knew in an instant what they were feeling. Their face as easy to read as the cover of a magazine. It was the sensation of an empathetic click she got when the undertaker answered their knock.
It went deeper thought. She couldn’t just tell how he felt, but what had frightened him to the point where his skin blanched white as the paint on Tom’s pickup. There was a saying for it. One she never believed until that moment.
He’s seen a ghost.
‘Sheriff!’ he almost whimpered when he caught sight of them standing on his darkened porch. ‘Oh thank Heaven you’re here. I know I’m losing my mind and I can’t bear it. You’ve gotta help me, sheriff. Jesus!’
His gaze didn’t even stray over Jessie for more than a second. All of his attention was fixed like a deadbolt on Tom, dragging him through the doorway without a touch. The acute plea in his eyes enough to send the sheriff’s hand towards his holster.
‘You said he’s gone, Frank,’ Tom said, stepping with a careful tread over the threshold. His fingers snapped the leather loop off the grip of his weapon. ‘What did you mean by that?’
A choked whisper was the only reply he got. Frank shuffled into the dimly lit room, laid out like a small chapel with rows of pews and an aisle running down the middle, and over to a large pine casket. The lid was open. There was nothing inside.
‘He’s gone,’ Frank managed to say, jabbing a long finger towards the open casket.
Jessie’s mind reeled. It was too much. She felt sick. There was no way a corpse could climb out of its casket and wander off. Those sorts of things just didn’t happen.
Is he alive then? What’s this guy trying to say? We saw Melcom lying on a slab hours ago. No way he woke up again. Tom shot half his face off.
A floorboard creaked in a room beyond the chapel. They all froze, staring towards the open door and the shadows of the corridor beyond. Frank whimpered and edged behind the sheriff.
Tom rounded on the undertaker, wearing the sort of expression cops often wore. It said loud and clear that jail time was on the cards if Frank was trying to play a prank on them. The undertaker didn’t even seem to notice the granite glare. His wide eyes stayed glued to the patch of shadows beyond the hallway, hands trembling.
Whatever this is, it’s not a prank.
The revolver was heavy, reassuring. Jessie raised it and stepped past the sheriff. There was no way of knowing what was through the doorway, but she had been a victim once already that day and didn’t plan on letting it happen a second time. If it was nothing then no harm done. If it was something, and something bad, she’d put a slug in whoever was behind it faster than drawing breath.
In spite of her bravado, Jessie was glad to see Tom moving in her peripheral vision. He padded over to the far end of the chapel and pulled open the other door as she stepped through hers. Nothing. She hadn’t realised how scared she was until the empty corridor was in front of her and she felt the cold dew on her palms. Sweating like a rookie, she chided herself.
She turned in time to see the thing coming at her. It was big, coming up to her waist. and strangely angular. Its limbs splayed out in all directions as it scuttled into her, reared up and knocked her to the floor. Her damp finger snatched at the trigger of her pistol, letting off a roaring shot which brought plaster trailing down from the ceiling.
Frank cried out in terror and she heard Tom fire two shots somewhere out on the porch. Then nothing. An empty silence.
‘Are you alright?’ Tom asked, running back into the chapel where she had slumped onto one of the pews. ‘Are you hurt?’
‘No,’ she muttered, grimacing as they heard a lump of plaster thud down on the carpet. ;Did you get it?’
‘It?’ Tom said, wrinkling his brow in confusion. ‘That was a man, Jessie. He ran off into the fields. Don’t worry though, I’ll radio for backup. He can’t get far.’
‘No, it wasn’t a man.’
‘Not a chance,’ Frank whispered, clasping his hands together. ‘It was him.’
‘He’s dead,’ Jessie said, with more force than she’d intended. ‘That thing was an animal.’
‘You need to get some rest,’ Tom said.
He took her arm and tried to lead her towards his car, but she shook him off.
He thinks I’m crazy. Well, I’m not. I know what I saw. That wasn’t Melcom. It was an animal.
The truly crazy thing was she thought she knew what it was. How it moved and the way its legs splayed out around it. Jessie knew what she’d seen was an insect, but there was no chance of Tom believing her. Whatever he’d seen, he was certain it was Melcom. That made even less sense than her theory.
Melcom’s dead. That thing wasn’t.