Echoes of Darkness won’t be available until Sunday, February 28, but to celebrate another one of our Storyside folks putting a check mark in the “published” column, we talked Rob in to sharing some of his new book with our readers a couple of days early, in a Storyside Sneek Peek!
An Excerpt from “Death of the Boy”
The words accompanied a sharp blow to his thigh. The boy opened his eyes to find the old man standing over him, dusty boot drawn back for another kick. Noting the boy’s open eyes, the old man returned the boot the ground and squatted, bringing his harsh, leathery face so close the boy choked on his breath: coffee, and at least one tooth going slowly bad.
“Them things can’t smell nothing over their own stink, and they can see pretty good, but they can hear better’n you and me, so far as I can tell. You gonna be making noise, you want to be awake for it, so’s you can choose to run or fight if one of ’em comes along. Y’unnerstand?”
The boy nodded. The old man stood in one fluid motion.
“Then quit’cher sleep-squallin’. Time to be up and moving, anyway.”
The boy glanced about, confused.
“Where’s Mom? Dad?”
The word was hard and flat, hitting the boy like a punch. The flashes that made up his dream filled his head, the world wavering as tears filled his eyes. His chest had just begun to hitch when a callused palm struck him across the face, shocking him into silence. The old man was crouching over him again.
“No time for that. Time for you to listen and do as I say, but not for that. How old are you?”
The boy stifled a sob. Touched his stinging cheek. “Huh?”
He flinched as the hand flew again, but rather than striking him, one bony finger extended to touch the tip of his nose.
“I’ve got more slap than you have sand, boy, believe me. Or time. Lost my horse getting you out of there yesterday. Lost some of my gear. We shook ’em, but that don’t mean they can’t stumble on us again. Now you best show me how it was worth losing my horse to get you out of there by listening up, because I can just up and walk out of here and make it fine on my own, zombies or no. You, on t’other hand, may have a little more trouble. I talk. You listen. You answer. You do. Comprendé?”
“Yes,” the boy managed, imagining for a moment being out there on his own, surrounded by the zombies that had taken his mom and dad. Eaten his mom and dad. It didn’t seem real, though he knew it was. He looked up at the old man, fear strengthening his voice: “Yes, sir.”
The finger disappeared. “Good. How old are you?”
“You’re a tall one. I woulda taken you for sixteen, seventeen easy. Okay, now strip.”
The boy blinked. “Huh?”
“Strip.” The old man straightened again. “Get on your feet and out of them clothes. Hurry up.”
The boy’s mind flashed back to what his father had called “warnings”: stories about bad things happening to children caught out by bandits and survivalists. It wasn’t just young girls that had to worry about men with needs. He’d been explicit enough that Mom had left the room, and the boy’d had nightmares for a couple of days.
Fear-sweat broke out across his upper lip, and down under his balls. He got his hands under him and began slowly crab-walking backward on his palms and soles, his butt barely clearing the ground.
“Look, I, uh—”
He was suddenly looking into the business end of a revolver, bullet tips peeking at him around the great staring eye of the barrel. He froze, his two eyes as unblinking as the revolver’s one.
“I said we don’t have time for this shit. God damn it, boy! I checked what I could last night, but I was too damn tired to fiddle with your clothes. I’m getting you out of here, but I ain’t takin’ a chance on you hiding sickness, then dying and turning on me in the night. You shitcan your modesty and peel off right now, and prove to me you ain’t been neither bit nor scratched, or—”
The gun never wavered, rock-steady as the old man thumbed the hammer back. The boy watched as a fresh cartridge rotated into place beneath that hammer, aimed along the barrel pointing directly at his left eye.
“—I’ll put a bullet through your head right now, to make sure you won’t be getting up afterward, then set about finding me another horse.”
Dark eyes gazed steadily at him over the chunk of metal death between them. One bushy eyebrow quirked.
“Are we clear?”
Silent tears ran down the boy’s face as he stripped.
Rob Smales is the author of Dead of Winter, which won the Superior Achievement in Dark Fiction Award from Firbolg Publishing’s Gothic Library in 2014. His short stories have been published in two dozen anthologies and magazines. His story “Photo Finish” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the Preditors & Editors’ Readers Choice Award for Best Horror Short Story of 2012.
Most recently, his story “A Night at the Show” received an honorable mention on Ellen Datlow’s list of the Best Horror of 2014, and was also nominated as best short story by the eFestival of Words.
More about his work can be found at www.RobSmales.com, or you can look him up on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Robert.T.Smales.