Cemetery Dance Online Exclusive Fiction
Kealan Patrick Burke
“So, would you like my number?” she asked.
Perched on the side of the bed with his back to her, the rumpled sheets still reeking of sex, Adam closed his eyes and sighed silently. “Sure,” he said, tugging on his socks. He would give her his number because that’s how these things were supposed to go, but as soon as he was on the road, he would block hers. Getting whiny texts from some air stewardess (or whatever the hell they called themselves nowadays) would be just what he needed when he got home to his wife. Glenda was already suspicious, and with good cause. He had learned to be careful not to bring any evidence of his exploits home with him after the one time she found a pair of pink frilly panties in his suitcase, put there by one of his conquests while he’d been in the shower.
“Okay, give me a second.” A pause. “Have you seen my other earring?”
“Dammit. Those were expensive.”
He doubted that somehow. He’d met her on the flight from Columbus, Ohio, to Atlanta, Georgia, on a particularly shitty plane. Even before he’d charmed her, he’d noticed a run in one of her stockings and her eye makeup was too thick. She hardly reeked of money.
“Did you check the sheets?”
“No.” She set about doing that very thing and he rose from the bed to allow her to search unimpeded. He was almost dressed, checkout was in fifteen minutes, his flight back to Columbus in two hours. He liked to be punctual, but more than that, he liked the idea of not having to listen to the woman any further. They’d done what they had come here to do, now it was time to move on. It irritated him to no end when they failed to understand that, especially when it made no sense at all to consider further possibilities. Even if he told them he was married (not always a surefire way to ensure an accelerated ending to their notions of romance), he traveled constantly and had no desire to anchor himself to any one location, or woman.
“Shit,” she said, throwing the sheets over the pillows.
“Sorry,” he said without an ounce of sincerity, and turned to look at her. She looked older today than she had last night, and considerably less attractive. He had met men who appreciated that morning-after, no makeup look, but he wasn’t one of them. Worse, he recalled the taste of sweat lingering beneath her perfume long before they’d ended up in bed together, and the memory of it made him queasy.
“If you find it anywhere, tangled in with your clothes or anything, will you text me and let me know?” she asked.
He nodded, cinched his tie, and offered her a smile he didn’t feel. “Of course.”
Harried, she grabbed her phone from the nightstand. “Okay, give me your number.”
Reluctantly, he did.
* * *
Outside the entrance to the hotel, he hailed her a cab, thanked her for a great evening (which it wasn’t), and promised to keep in touch (which he wouldn’t). When she asked him to look her up next time he was in town, he saw by the faltering smile on her face that he had not been entirely convincing in assuring her that it would be a top priority. He guessed it was not the first time she had been made empty promises by what would turn out to be just another in a long line of one-night stands. The deep lines the sunlight filled with shadow might have been the scars of many a lonely war fought and lost.
As her cab pulled away, the vacancy quickly filled by the hotel shuttle that would take him to the terminal a quarter mile away, he couldn’t restrain a long sigh of relief. With the exception of these necessary sexual encounters, he preferred his own company to those of others, so much so that he found himself hoping the shuttle driver was the reticent sort and not another lonely soul eager to fill the silence with inanities. It appeared his luck was in. The driver barely cast him a glance and stowed Adam’s luggage on the interior rack so roughly it might once have insulted his mother. The shuttle was only half full, and Adam took out his iPhone to avoid making eye contact with any of the morose looking passengers.
There were three text messages from his wife, only one of which he would pay for ignoring. She had sent it at a quarter to midnight the previous night, a simple “Goodnight, my handsome man. Hope the trip is going well and I look forward to having you back in my bed tomorrow night!” He hadn’t responded because at the time he’d been busy undressing the stewardess. He quickly typed a response:
“Thanks honey. Sorry I missed your text last night. I had one scotch too many and passed out at about eleven. On the way to the airport now. See you in a few hours.”
It would be enough to pacify her, but doubts about the veracity of his claim would linger for a few days, which meant he’d have to coddle her for a while, ratchet up his tenderness toward her. No easy task considering he’d married her for her father’s money and had spent the last eight years pretending she was anything other than the hammer to her old man’s piggy bank. The act was not easy to maintain, and occasions in which the façade threatened to fall, burned away by his mounting frustration and anger, were growing increasingly more common as time went on. He was a year from fifty, and feeling every bit of it. He only maintained his job as a Six Sigma Black Belt as an excuse to leave home and travel twice a month. Glenda had more than once offered to support him if he chose to retire. He had no intention of it. Not until her father croaked, at least. So in the meantime, he phoned in the obligations of his job, droning on about quality management in stuffy rooms full of bored employees until it was time to get drunk and laid.
But these days, even the escape and the sex didn’t satisfy him like it once had. For one, instances in which his erection failed him were increasing, and he could only blame so much of that on the alcohol. His looks were failing and he was getting old. Out of habit he found himself pursuing younger, more attractive women only to be rebuffed (often with expressions of disgust), which forced him to accept the attention of women closer to his own age and older. His pride suffered and frequently left him depressed.
Someday soon, something was going to break.
As the shuttle thumped over a series of speed bumps and entered the airport parking lot, the phone buzzed in his hand. Glenda. Without bothering to read the message, he slipped it into his pocket.
Anxiety made his muscles taut. Part of it was the inescapable and ever-more pervasive feeling of late that he was starting to lose himself, that his poorly conceived plan to benefit from a hasty and loveless marriage was going to backfire, leaving him broke and wandering the earth alone. A smaller part of it was the guilt at the kind of person he had allowed himself to become. This he could have forgiven were he not conscious of the fact that once upon a time he’d been a much better, much happier man, a man with goals and dreams, and a much more positive outlook on life and the people with whom he shared it. There was indeed a time in which people would have referred to him as “a good guy.” Pondering how far from that he was now was sometimes enough to cripple him because he knew there was little he could do to regain the man he’d once been. That version of himself had been buried a long time ago, and he didn’t know why, couldn’t pinpoint the event that had precipitated the change. And worse, he knew he’d never be that man again. It was too late. Only the memory remained now, but even that was growing dimmer, like people in a near-empty theater sitting just outside the reach of the lights.
The shuttle pulled up outside the terminal. Adam stayed in his seat to allow the other passengers to disembark, an uncharacteristically polite move he put down to his brief sojourn with the memory of his better self, until a magnificently obese woman bashed her suitcase against his knee and then followed it with a glare before shuffling out of the bus.
And just like that, Adam’s manners fled. He rose, grabbed his luggage from the rack and hustled out of the bus ahead of the remaining passengers, quietly delighting in their scoffs and clucked tongues.
Fuck ‘em, he thought. The only clue he would ever have as to why his personality had at some point been so dramatically altered was that he had been hurt by someone, hurt badly. If allowed, they could and would hurt him again. But callous, ruthless people seldom got hurt. No, they were the ones who did the hurting. They were the ones who built the walls that kept the world away.
Freed of the temporary malaise, he stalked toward the terminal doors through the dead heat of the June day feeling somewhat recharged, his lips canted in a smile. Nobody who witnessed that smile would have called it a good one.
* * *
Adam loved to fly, but hated airports. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he realized he pretty much hated any place where people gathered in large numbers. Or smaller numbers, for that matter. Even the sterile rooms full of blank-faced worker drones at Apple or Amex or World Financial, or any of the facilities he was employed to visit made him slightly nauseous. While delivering his lectures, he found himself agitated that these facilities seemed averse to windows, something about wanting to keep the employees’ focus on their work, not on the world outside. But it was the world outside that offered him the only solace as he rubbed his nose to give it a rest from the smell of boredom, gas, and bad personal hygiene. Which is why he always sat by the windows in the airport and always insisted on a window seat on the plane. It was, perhaps the only peace left available to him, and he savored it, let his mind wander and—
He took his time returning his focus from the large tinted windows behind him, through which the sun was a failing lightbulb suspended over sepia runways, to the impatient expression of the woman at the ticketing desk. Her skin was pale, green eyes cold and hooded, her red hair wrapped noose-like around the crown of her head. He imagined her playing a villainess on Game of Thrones. Wordlessly, he handed her his ticket. With a long suffering sigh, she entered his information, each clack of her fake, overlong nails like a ballpeen hammer to the base of his spine. A thin silent man with bad skin and eyes so dark they could have been nubs of coal appeared apparently from thin air and loaded Adam’s tagged bags onto the conveyor which would feed them down onto the runway, and ultimately, into the belly of the plane.
The woman handed Adam his ticket. “You’re boarding at Gate—”
“I know where I’m boarding,” he said, and walked away.
With little less than an hour to kill before boarding, he made a stop at Bridie Dees, a faux Irish pub (and really, the term faux could be applied to any establishment within the confines of an airport terminal) which was quiet enough to appease him. Dewar’s in hand, he took a seat far from the bar where the lights were dimmest, and checked his phone. Three messages. The one from Glenda he hadn’t bothered to read in the shuttle (“Can’t wait to see you! I’ll have a pork roast ready for my baby!”), one from Linda the Stewardess, which was a topless selfie taken in some unidentified bathroom (“The girls miss you already, hot stuff!”), and one from Mark Corcoran, his boss (“Heard from the folks at Unicorp. Another job well done, dude. Everybody’s happy. Nice work. Take an extra day to recupe and I’ll see you Tuesday.”).
Adam closed his eyes and groaned. An extra day. Which meant an extra day at home with Glenda. The thought of her fussing over him made him physically ill. It was as if she wasn’t as oblivious to his disdain as he’d always assumed and overcompensated by…well, overcompensating. There were days in which she treated him like a child instead of a husband and it made him want to scream.
After another drink, he decided he was going to say nothing about the day off, dress for work and leave at the normal time, but disappear into the city for the day, maybe look up one of his old conquests or go see a movie. He hadn’t seen one in a while and fewer people went during the day. If he was lucky, he’d be alone.
With thirty minutes before boarding, he rose, loosened his tie and made his way toward the appointed gate. The terminal was strangely devoid of people. It was almost two o clock in the afternoon in mid-June. He’d glumly expected to be fighting his way through a thick current of travelers, but the concourse was home only to a few stragglers, which suited him just fine. Even better, there were only a dozen or so people at the gate and only three people in line at security.
He hoped his traversal of this particularly loathsome process would be quick and painless. As innocuous as he appeared, they usually paid him little mind, just asked him to step through after he’d taken off his belt and shoes and then waved him on. He never carried a carry-on bag, which tended to make the screening process even faster, but still, he detested the invasiveness of it all. 55,000 employees hired in the wake of 9/11 and not a single one of them seemed to know how to smile or interact with people. He appreciated the irony of someone like him criticizing those miserable looking people for their lack of a sunny disposition, and if he thought about it, he could hardly blame them, but still, he found them off-putting, and quite often, downright hostile.
He took his place in line and removed his shoes—slip-ons to avoid further inconvenience—and his belt and tossed them into a gray plastic tub which he set upon the conveyor belt. He added his cell phone and wallet to the pile and nudged it along the belt until the woman in front of him was through the metal detector, at which point he let the tub sail on without him.
He moved to the yellow line on the floor and waited his turn.
On the other side of the metal detector, the biggest TSA agent he had ever seen stood looking at him. The man was at least six and a half feet tall, his shorn skull oddly misshapen, eyes lost in the shadow of a Cro-Magnon brow. A wide flat nose presided over an elongated jaw and a mouth that was almost perversely wide, and though it was shut, one yellow incisor poked out, digging into the man’s thick lower lip. The agent’s chest was almost the same width as the metal detector.
As Adam waited to be prompted to step through, he realized that when the man blinked, his eyelids closed a split second apart, as if each lid were being operated by independent brains.
Jesus, Adam thought, growing increasingly more uncomfortable with every second that passed in which he was not motioned to pass through the detector. Where did they find this guy? He was not encouraged further to note that the man’s blue shirt was missing a button in the midsection, the material parted by the swell of his belly to reveal a wedge of pale skin beneath.
Enough time passed for Adam to wonder if the guy had had a stroke, but if so, then the agent monitoring the X-ray machine, a reed-thin black man with neatly tethered dreadlocks and a silver hoop in his nose, hadn’t noticed. Adam looked back over his shoulder and saw that there was no one waiting in line behind him with whom he could comment on the absurdity of the situation. Even stranger, there was nobody in the gate at all. He was alone, with just the frozen agent and his oblivious colleague.
After another few moments in which confusion gave way to concern that he might miss his flight, he asked, “Can I—?”
The agent raised a surgically gloved hand and motioned him through.
“Thank you,” Adam said, forcing the sarcasm from his voice for fear the agent would use it as an excuse to delay him even further.
He stepped through the metal detector and flinched when it beeped.
“Again,” the agent grunted, flapping his hand at Adam like a man trying to shoo a dog.
Adam obeyed, waited a moment on the other side of the detector, and stepped back through.
And again it beeped. Annoyed, he checked his pockets front and back and found nothing that should have set the detector off. And now both the giant agent and his dreadlocked companion were looking at him as if he were wearing a vest full of dynamite.
The gloved hand, like a side of beef covered in flour, rose again and beckoned him forward. “Step over here.” Still dressed in his socks, the cheap carpet unpleasant beneath his feet, Adam did as he was told and followed the agent until he stopped and turned to face him, a wand in his hand Adam hadn’t seen him pick up.
“Spread your arms as if you think you can fly,” said the agent.
Adam spread his arms and sighed. He wondered if his earlier impatience had jinxed him. Perhaps hoping for a sympathetic glance, he looked toward the man seated at the X-ray machine and was startled to realize that somehow in the short space of time it had taken for him to step a few feet further into the screening area, the dreadlocked agent had vanished.
He did not like the fact that he was completely alone with the giant. Another look around and he was dismayed to note that that was well and truly the case, because what little of the concourse he could see beyond the agent’s massive frame appeared to be completely deserted now. It was as if someone were playing a prank on him. Abruptly he felt like a man who has come home on his birthday to a dark and empty house, only for the lights to suddenly snap on to reveal the crowd that has been there waiting to celebrate.
Only nothing about this felt like a celebration.
“Turn around,” the agent commanded, and again, he obeyed. In the past Adam had been one of those people who didn’t hesitate to complain if the process took too long or the agent was rude, but he knew without question that this was not the time to exercise his God-given right to be an asshole. This particular agent looked like he could drive him down through the concrete with one thump to the top of his head. So he endured the intrusive attention of the wand with all its weird swirling crackles and whines, until the agent lowered the tool.
And said nothing. Nor did he move. Instead he stood there, less than a foot away from Adam, and stared. And now Adam could see that the man’s pores were big enough to store pennies. Long spidery hairs, a curious shade of neon red, protruded from his cavernous nostrils and moved like underwater vegetation when he breathed. His eyebrows were a similar shade, and this close, Adam could see that the man’s pupils were enormous, the whites reduced to slivers on the far sides of his eyes.
He smelled like burning.
Was the guy high? Was that what was going on?
For the first time since this whole bizarre episode had begun, Adam felt a quaver of fear in the base of his throat which leached all the moisture from his mouth. He licked his lips. “Can I go through?”
The agent didn’t answer, and now Adam noticed how deathly quiet the airport had gotten. All the sounds associated with airport terminals, sounds so common you never really noticed them, were now deafening in their absence. The announcements hailing Mister or Missus Whoever had stopped. The alerts, the whine of carts, the beep of indicators, the pneumatic hiss of the air conditioning, the clunk of doors, the chatter on the concourse, the myriad cacophony of countless cellphones…all of it had stopped, creating an eerie vacuum Adam couldn’t comprehend.
“Sir?” he asked, “Can I go thr—?”
“I’m gonna have to ask you to come with me,” the agent said, and when he spoke, Adam could see that he had no teeth save that one incisor and his gums were the color of tar.
This isn’t right. Where the hell is everybody? He felt as if he had stepped into a nightmare, one he could only hope would end with him waking up back in the Hyatt beside the stewardess. Perhaps he’d even ask her if she thought the TSA would ever stoop to hiring as an agent a toothless ogre with black eyes. She’d laugh at the absurdity of the question, because it was of course completely absurd. And yet he knew he was not asleep, which made all of this so bizarre he was left with only one reasonable option. The same option he would one day have to employ to escape his marriage to the woman he didn’t love.
He had to leave.
“You know, if I could, I’d like to make a quick phone call. I just realized I might have left something back at my hotel.”
Without waiting for the agent’s permission, because he was sure he wouldn’t get it, he turned toward the conveyor belt.
All the tubs were empty.
His phone, belt, and shoes were gone.
Confiscated? But why?
This was the question he posed to the TSA agent, who he was discomfited to see was now smiling at him, those black gums glistening under the fluorescent lights.
“Where’s my stuff? My phone and…and my shoes? Where are they? Why were they taken?”
“I’m going to have to ask you to come with me,” the agent replied, “Come with me, come with me, come with me.” With each repetition of the phrase, the man’s voice rose an octave. “Come with me, come with me, come with me,” until he sounded like someone who had inhaled helium. Adam’s blood turned to ice in his veins, the hair prickling to attention all over his body. His testicles withdrew, and then he did too, backing away from the giant, his throat so parched from fear he thought he might never speak again.
“No, I…I don’t think so.” Terrified to take his gaze from the TSA agent, whose snow-white features seem to swim and shift and dance as he advanced on him, Adam backed up until he was inside the metal detector. Where he froze as if someone had injected him with liquid nitrogen.
“Going to have to strip search you. See what you’re hiding.”
This is wrong, so horribly wrong. My God what’s—?
And now that he was paralyzed inside the detector, held in place by what felt like restless, invisible hands, the agent abandoned all pretense of being human. With a brittle crack, his enormous skull split right down the middle like a peanut shell and what Adam saw within drove him immediately insane, made him feel as if his skull had followed suit.
He began to laugh. It was the first laugh he’d had in as long as he could remember.
A thousand hands, he thought, as the laughter rose in pitch and the invisible grip on him began to tighten. The man has a thousand hands inside his head. He tried to halt the laughter, some distant dying part of him still protesting against the absolute horror of what he was seeing, but he couldn’t.
The agent-thing moved closer, closer, and now his body began to split open too, but this time when it yawned wide like a giant Venus flytrap, Adam was not surprised at the host of clambering hands that exploded toward him.
They took his clothes first, and when they freed him of his socks, he saw a glimmer of silver on the floor by his feet before the tar that poured from the agent swallowed it and everything else up.
It was the stewardess’s earring.
The last laugh sounded like the machine that had alerted the agent to the presence of the jewelry in his clothes.
Adam looked toward the window for one last moment of solace, and saw nothing. The world out there was gone.
Then they took his skin.
Born and raised in Dungarvan, Ireland, Kealan Patrick Burke is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of five novels (Master of the Moors, Currency of Souls, Kin, The Living, and Nemesis: The Death of Timmy Quinn), over a hundred short stories, four collections (Ravenous Ghosts, The Number 121 to Pennsylvania & Others, Theater Macabre, and The Novellas), and editor of four acclaimed anthologies (Taverns of the Dead, Quietly Now: A Tribute to Charles L. Grant,Brimstone Turnpike, and Tales from the Gorezone, proceeds from which were donated to children’s charity PROTECT.)
Kealan has worked as a waiter, a drama teacher, a mapmaker, a security guard, an assembly-line worker at Apple Computers, a salesman (for a day), a bartender, landscape gardener, vocalist in a grunge band, and, most recently, a fraud investigator. He also played the male lead in Slime City Massacre, director Gregory Lamberson’s sequel to his cult B-movie classic , alongside scream queens Debbie Rochon and Brooke Lewis.
When not writing, Kealan designs covers for print and digital books through his company Elderlemon Design. To date he has designed covers for books by Richard Laymon, Brian Keene, Scott Nicholson, Bentley Little, William Schoell, and Hugh Howey, to name a few.
In what little free time remains, Kealan is a voracious reader, movie buff, videogamer (Xbox), and road-trip enthusiast.
His short story “Peekers” is currently in development as a feature film from Lionsgate Entertainment.