Here’s a short story that I wrote for the 2013 AHWA/Melbourne Zombie Convention Short Story Competition. It didn’t place but I still like it. I hope you do too.
Ruby clutched her red crayon and carefully brought it to the page. Her tongue crept out between her lips and explored the split in the corner of her mouth. She tasted blood and dirt and sweat. Her stomach clenched and she moaned softly. So much of the colouring was outside the lines. So much of everything was outside the lines. Nothing was where it should be, not since Uncle Brian fell and the monsters had come.
Something in the basement toppled, sending an echoing clatter up the stairs. Ruby gasped, scrambling backwards into the safety of her den, her lips drawn back, exposing her small, filthy teeth. A long, wet groan floated up at her out of the dark. Ruby drew her knees tight to her body, pressed her hands against her ears and squeezed her eyes shut. If she heard nothing, saw nothing and smelled nothing for long enough, she could pretend that the thing in the basement was just that: a thing.
After what seemed like a safe enough time, Ruby pried her eyes open and cautiously peeled her hands away. All was silent. She drew her lips back and hissed. She couldn’t help it. But when nothing answered her, she crept out from beneath the blanket she had suspended between the two chairs. She sniffed the air. The bad smell was always there, like Fluffy’s body after he’d crawled under the deck and died, but it wasn’t especially strong, so Ruby came all the way out of her den and went back to her picture.
The crayon was snapped clean down the middle. The two pieces were now too small for her to hold and use properly. Around the picture were fragments of coloured wax, all snapped and useless. Ruby was having more and more trouble. It had been so many days since Uncle Brian fell. She took the last of what her mother had given her out of her pocket and sucked on it. There was nothing left to eat off it, but taste, and taste only made the pain in her stomach worse.
And now her last crayon was broken. She stared down at the half-coloured picture. It was Ariel, the mermaid. Ruby’s favourite because they both had red hair. Now it would never be finished. Ruby’s eyes blurred and she felt her thoughts sail away from her, like a kite on a tugging wind.
The day Uncle Brian fell had started so nicely. Ruby had woken to hear her mother singing in the kitchen while she made tea and toast for her father. The sun was peeking around the edges of the curtains in Ruby’s room, turning the little bits of stuff in the air into fairy dust. It was good that it was sunny today. Today was a super-special day.
Ruby climbed out of bed and skipped into the kitchen.
“Morning, Pumpkin,” her mother said, planting a kiss on the top of Ruby’s head as she lay the plate of toast in front of Ruby’s father.
“Morning Rubes,” her father muttered. He took a piece of toast, bit into it and kept reading his paper
“Big day today,” her mother said, bringing Ruby a bowl of cereal. “Uncle Brian’s driving his fire truck to your kindy!”
Ruby nodded and tucked in. “Yeah! Everyone will get a go with the hose and pressing the button for the siren!”
“Ruby!” Her father frowned. “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
Ruby swallowed carefully. “Sorry Daddy.”
Her mother sat and looked down at her cup of tea. When she looked up again, she didn’t look as happy as before. She smiled. “I’ll bet Bella and Thomas will love meeting Uncle Brian.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Ruby said, making sure her mouth was empty. “And Miss Pregnell. She said she might even have a go with the hose!’
“Oh my goodness,” her mother said with a laugh, “that will be funny!”
Ruby came back. It was like being slowly poured into her body. First she filled her feet, then her legs, then her stomach (oh, how it ached), then her fingers and arms and neck and finally her head and her ears and tongue, and eyes came back. She opened them and froze. Ruby had somehow gotten halfway down the stairs into the basement. Another few steps and she would be in reach of the thing in the dark. Ruby turned and scrambled up the stairs on all fours, breath coming out of her in thin whimpers. The skin on her scalp and back tightened unbearably, until she was sure she would feel the thing’s fingers clamp on her foot and drag her down. Up she went, faster and faster, drawing her legs up quickly behind her.
She burst up and out of the stairway, spinning and scrambling backwards on her backside. Oh how she wished the door at the bottom of the stairs hadn’t broken. But the thing had crashed into it when it had first gotten into the basement. Ruby had tried dragging some chairs in front of the doorway but her arms and legs wouldn’t work and in the end, she’d had to leave it.
Ruby hung her head and waited to catch her breath. She was so tired. So tired and so hungry. How long would it be before the thing downstairs got her? Perhaps she didn’t care anymore. She just wanted her mother. Her stomach twisted and she grunted. No words came out of her. Somehow, they had sailed out of her head since Uncle Brian fell. So tired. So very, very tired. She crawled into her den, curled into a ball and felt her eyes close as she drifted again.
“Uncle Brian! Uncle Brian!” Ruby clung to the fence out the front of her kindergarten, feet stuck through the gaps so she could be as tall as possible and Uncle Brian would see her first.
HONK! HONK! HONK! The children squealed and laughed as Ruby’s uncle swung the big red truck into the car park. Missy cried. Miss Pregnell crouched down, showing her wide bottom to Ruby while she gave Missy a cuddle. Missy buried her face into Miss Pregnell’s shoulder.
Silly billy, Ruby thought, Uncle Brian’s not scary.
Ruby’s uncle hopped down out of the cab and waved. Ruby waved back and hurried to the gate so she could be first to let him in.
“Hello, Ruby Red!” Uncle Brian boomed. He was big and loud, just like his fire truck. He scooped her up and plonked her on his shoulders. Ruby shrieked and giggled, breathless and a little frightened but she wouldn’t show it, not in front of the other children.
“Hello, Yellow Ducks!”
“Hello, Fireman Brian!” the children shouted.
“Who’s ready to fight some fires?”
All the children’s hands shot up, except Missy’s. “Me! Me! Me!”
“What about you, Miss Pregnell?” Uncle Brian asked.
Miss Pregnell laughed and patted her round belly. “I don’t think you’ve got a suit big enough for me!”
“What?” Uncle Brian said. “Of course we do. Here, you can borrow my hat.” He plonked the bright yellow fireman’s helmet on Miss Pregnell’s head. It was too big and slipped down onto Miss Pregnell’s nose, squashing her hair.
Miss Pregnell giggled. “Well, I suppose I’m ready then!”
“That’s the way!” Uncle Brian beamed. “Now, who wants first go of the hose?”
Ruby’s eyes snapped open and she held her breath, listening.
Ruby scrambled further back into her den, lips drawn back in a silent snarl.
How does it know my name? What is my name?
Ruby. Ruby Red. Hearing it was like having her mother’s lips brush against her ear. Like Uncle Brian’s big hand running over the top of her head, his ring a hard counterpoint to his thick, heavy fingers.
Go away. Please, go away.
“Heh, heh, heh.” The thing wept: snotty, bubbly moans and groans then awful chuckles and titters.
Ruby stared at the dark doorway leading down to the stairs. The thing sounded like it was higher up. It sounded like it had managed to drag itself almost to the top. She would have to go and see. She would have to try to push it down again. She had done it before. She would have to do it again. Hissing and scrambling back, and then out, and back and then out again, Ruby finally brought herself to the edge of the stairwell. She pushed to her feet and pressed herself to the right of the doorway. Her tongue sought out the sore in the corner of her mouth again but she was not aware this time of the blood. She laid a trembling hand on the door frame and peered around into the dark.
The thing raised its face up to her and moaned. It clutched its leg, the one that had snapped and gone the wrong way when Ruby had first pushed it down the stairs. The bone gleamed white in the darkness and Ruby could smell the Fluffy smell again. Her stomach clenched like an angry fist and she doubled, groaning.
She saw then, the red handprint on the step second from the top. It had gotten higher than she thought. She stood, swaying at the top of the stairs, staring at the single stained print on the step and felt herself drifting away.
Ruby’s uncle switched off the siren and stared across the field of the farm that was next to Ruby’s kindy. His eyebrows were together and he looked more like Ruby’s father than Uncle Brian for a minute.
“What’s that?” he asked.
Miss Pregnell swivelled her head in the same direction. Ruby’s ears were still full of siren noise and she couldn’t hear anything at all. Then she smelled it.
“Denise,” Ruby’s uncle said, “get the kids inside. I’ll call this in.”
Ruby had just a brief moment to wonder who Denise was then Miss Pregnell swept all the children inside the front door.
“Children, Fireman Brian has to check something, so we need to stay quiet and wait inside the kindy building,” Miss Pregnell said, ushering Ben Jones and Ben Casey inside.
“Is it a fire?” Ben Jones asked, jumping up and down. He ran back to the door and peered out.
“We don’t know,” Miss Pregnell said, steering Ben Jones back to the mat, “but we need to stay quiet and calm and let him find out.”
Ruby watched her uncle finish talking on his radio and climb down out of the truck. He shielded his eyes from the sun and stared out across the farm. After a moment, he began cutting across the field and heading towards a thin pillar of smoke beyond the farmhouse.
“Will Uncle Brian be alright?” Ruby asked.
Miss Pregnell wrapped an arm around Ruby’s shoulders. Miss Pregnell’s large bosom squashed up against the side of Ruby’s head. “He knows what he’s doing,” Miss Pregnell said. “Remember, this is what your uncle does for a job. He’ll be fine.”
Miss Pregnell was wrong.
What looked like some people came around the back of the farmhouse, stumbling and lurching towards Uncle Brian. Some were on fire, some smoking like walking candles, some just like normal people. Ruby heard Uncle Brian scream and as one, the people turned towards him and began to chase him. They shuffled and stumbled and tripped over. Uncle Brian was faster than them, easy.
But then he fell.
And they got him.
Ruby screamed and clutched at Miss Pregnell. Miss Pregnell made a strange choking noise and clutched at her chest. Then she toppled. Ruby looked up just in time to see the great shadow from Miss Pregnell. There was a single crushing moment and then silence.
Ruby felt something tickling her as she poured back into her body. She opened her eyes dreamily and stared down at the hand crabbing across her foot. She gasped and staggered backwards, dropping down to all fours and scuttling away.
It had made it to the top of the stairs. Ruby turned her face from it and pressed her hands over her ears.
But she could still hear it.
No. Oh no Daddy. Please don’t. It can’t be you.
“Rubes…” It groaned and shuffled along the floor.
Ruby peeled open her eyes. The thing had its head bowed and was propped up on its arms. Its broken leg dragged behind it at a terrible angle. A pink line of drool stretched from its mouth and fell to the floor with a little ‘plip’. Ruby clenched her fists into her lap, pressing down into her middle. Oh how her stomach twisted and hurt and wouldn’t let up.
The thing lifted its head and Ruby whimpered. It tilted its face and held out an unsteady hand to her.
“Shhh…” it burbled thickly at her. “Shhh…”
Ruby backed herself all the way into her den, hissing and baring her teeth. But still it wouldn’t stop coming. She heard it moan as it dragged itself after her. Moans and chuckling and weeping. If only she could go back to the silence. Miss Pregnell’s great shadow, the suffocating weight then silence.
It clutched her ankle, drawing itself further into her den. There was nowhere left to go. Ruby could only clench her fists and hold herself tight. Her mind tried to go, to fly away from her but she kept hold of it. She wouldn’t. She wouldn’t go away.
The thing drew her close, filling her nose with Fluffy’s smell, pressing all around her. Her mouth drew down in a bow and flooded with saliva. She turned her head away but it captured her face in its broken hands and pulled her back.
Please Daddy. Don’t be the one who takes me away.
Ruby felt the last of her mind tear free and burn up like those shambling people in the field. She reached up and took its hands from her face. She stretched out her legs and allowed it to rest its head upon her lap. She cradled its head in her small hands, brushing the matted hair away from the half-closed eyes. She was so very, very hungry and it had been such a long time since Mummy, and there was nothing left except the bones in Ruby’s pocket.
Ruby lowered her head to her daddy’s and pressed her lips to his forehead.
She whispered one word, “Brains…”
Then she opened her mouth and bit.
Red. Red. Red.