"Speak of the Dead"
Deputy Waylon Dupree winced when the first wave of thunder shook his patrol car. It was low and rumbling as if the earth beneath him were crashing through the canopy of asphalt to take hold of him. The heavy rain came soon after. He struggled against the high winds to stay on the road. Add in some of that telekinesis and telepathy stuff and you got yourself somethin’ right out of a Stephen King novel.
At twenty-one, Waylon was the youngest deputy in the Bidwell County Sheriff's Department in Weldon, Mississippi: population 109 1/2. It used to be an even 110, but Mervin Garnell had gone and gotten his legs lopped off while trying to dislodge a raccoon carcass from his combine. As the rookie, Waylon had the sublime privilege of working the graveyard shift in a town roughly the size of your average Walmart.
"Lord of Moses! That wasn’t no clap of thunder—that was a dadgum standin’ ovation!"
It was almost two in the morning and Waylon was dog-tired. The bottom had dropped out of the rain-heavy sky and now he couldn’t see two feet in front of him. He decided to be sensible about the whole exhaustion/biblical flood thing and find a place to pull over and grab some shut-eye. He knew of a car wash about five miles up the road on State Road 29, where he could swing into one of the outdoor stalls and nod off till the storm passed.
Waylon was well acquainted with the area. He’d grown up in the pinprick town of Blytheville. For well over a century, his kinfolk had filled the graveyards of Weldon, Blytheville, and nearby Buck Horn. His family’s sweat and bones were in the soil of each of the small farming communities. Everyone knew everybody; most were related in some way or another. As denizens of the peaceful, rural life, their biggest concerns centered around increasing their crops’ yields and not accidentally coming on to their cousin in a bar. But there was also the unspoken yearning to run away from the land that absorbed its people like a sponge in a hurricane. The place never quite let go of you; it sure hadn’t let go of Waylon.
He took his time getting to the car wash—this wasn’t the time for hot rodding. He pulled into one of the open stalls and killed the old Crown Vic’s massive, 250-horsepower, V-8 monster motor. Waylon sank into the well-worn butt crater bequeathed him by his lard-bottomed predecessor: the newly and thankfully retired, Big Mick Harvey.
Waylon was just about to cross over into Snoozeville, USA when the booming voice of Deb from Dispatch blared from the radio. The fearless female officer was a boisterous, hard-drinkin’, rough ’n tumble kind of gal whom the boys at the department clandestinely referred to as Old Smokey. The name had come about because each of them claimed to have been on top of her at some point.
“Waylon. Oh, Waaylooon . . . Boy, are you asleep out there? Just grunt and let me know you’re alive.”
“I’m here, Deb. What’s up?”
“I got a good one for ya. You ’member ol’ Mabel Luckabee?”
Mabel was the stuff of legend in their neck of the woods. She was a mean, old cuss who never met a person she could tolerate or a deodorant she couldn’t overcome. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then Mable was the antichrist. She was now well into her seventies and living alone in her raggedy, two-story farmhouse in Weldon. A widow by vocation, some of the townsfolks opined that her last husband, Ed, had passed away, not because of any mishap or disease, but because—like the other poor S.O.B.’s before him—he’d wanted to. Not long after, his Bluetick hound dog, Bucket Head, decided to go AWOL. Everybody figured with Ed gone, the dog must’ve thought, Oh no, you don’t, and taken off for parts unknown. Mabel was an equal opportunity offender. She hated everyone, regardless of race, creed, or species. Her scowling moonscape of a face filled Waylon’s mind, making him grimace.
“What about her? Did she ugly away or somethin’? Durn woman looks like the love child of Steve Buscemi and Elma the Yak Lady.”
“Don’t know yet. I just got a call from Dorene, her nosy night-owl neighbor. Says she ain’t seen her since Monday; that’s two days ago. Dorene’s tried callin’ her, but she won’t answer the phone. She also said the house lights have been on the whole time. I need you to do a welfare check. I know she’s a pain, so just peek in her window and see if she’s movin’ around.”
“Can’t we just wait a few days to see if the buzzards are circlin’ her house?”
“Come on now, Waylon. You and me both know two things: One, the buzzards won’t go anywhere near her ’cause it might lower their culinary standards. And two, you ain’t got nothin’ better to do.”
“Deb, the only thing worse than findin’ that old hag alive would be findin’ her dead.”
“Well, if she is, her funeral’s gonna draw quite a crowd.”
“Why? Nobody can stand her.”
“That's true, but you know what they say: ‘Give the people what they want and they’ll show up in droves.”
“Fair point. All right, then; I’m on my way.”
The rain had begun to ease off, but the thunder and lightning were still raising a fuss. Waylon was thankful for the graveled lane that led up to the Luckabee house; otherwise, he would've had to swim for it. After roughly thirty yards of potholes and low-hanging tree limbs, he pulled up to the decrepit, old place.
Waylon had been there a few times during his childhood to chuck rocks and cherry bombs. But with the storm still laying haymakers, the house looked more foreboding than he remembered. The lengthy shards of white paint, that the claws of time had carved away, made it look like a large potato that had gone a few rounds with an angry vegetable peeler. Its tattered roof sloped down to rusty gutters from which lush, rambling gardens of weeds flourished. Looming from the blackness, the eerie eyesore brought to Waylon’s mind an exterior set from a Rob Zombie movie.
He grabbed the small Maglite from his service belt, put on his plastic-covered deputy’s hat, and jogged to the house’s front porch. Its weak structural integrity gave him pause. This porch makes me think of Mabel: old, nasty, and saggin’ in all the worst places. He looked through the windows but didn’t see anyone. He pounded on the door. No one answered, so he banged harder. “Mrs. Luckabee! Oh, Mrs. Luckabee! Sheriff’s Department! Mrs. Luckabee, you in there?” When he failed to get a response, he tried the doorknob. Mabel had left the door unlocked, so he stepped inside.
Waylon walked through the house’s main floor, calling the elderly woman’s name, but all was still and silent. With each step, the sticky wooden floorboards groaned as if they were dying. As he went from one disheveled room to another, he was amazed and appalled at the amount of debris that Mabel had hoarded. There were several dozen unopened boxes from QVC, old clothes and magazines, dusty porcelain dolls, and other creepy items that might indicate someone wearing a skin suit was about to come at you with a running chainsaw. “Giiirl, you are seriously messed up,” he said. As he ventured further into the cramped house, a nostril-searing stench hit him square in his nose. “Woo-eee! Smells like feet, farts, and Fritos in here.”
He headed up the stairs to check out what he figured might be a bedroom, a bathroom—and given the vibe of the creepy place—quite possibly, a kill room. When he reached the second-floor landing, he heard a faint sound coming from one of the rooms. “Mrs. Luckabee? That you?”
He followed the noise to one of the rooms and found the door ajar. He pushed it open and saw Mabel lying on her bed. Dressed in a dingy, white nightgown, she was propped up on a pillow, staring at a small, portable TV located on a dresser near the bed’s foot.
“Oh, hey, Mrs. Luckabee. You probably don’t remember me, but I’m Don and Linda Dupree’s boy, Waylon. I come by to check on ya. You okay?”
Mabel didn’t acknowledge his presence; she kept staring blankly at the TV as if it had hypnotized her.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I need to make sure you’re all right. Are you . . . all right, I mean?”
Mabel continued to ignore him, so he walked between her and the TV. She kept looking ahead as if he wasn’t there. Waylon went to grab hold of her toes and give them a shake, but when he saw the thick, curled nails, he poked her foot with the hand-sized Maglite instead. Note to self: destroy my flashlight.
When she didn’t respond, Waylon walked around to the side of the bed. He leaned in close to her and whispered, “Mrs. Luckabeee.” He pushed the side of her greasy head with the tip of his Maglite and she keeled over on her side. “Judas on a tricycle!” Waylon felt for a pulse but found none. Then he heard a light scratching. He tracked the sound to Mabel's face and noticed her lips pulsing outward. He held back his sickness when two large, brown cockroaches exited her mouth. After pulling in a few cleansing breaths to quell his disgust, he pressed the talk button on his shoulder radio. “Deb? Waylon here. Pick up.”
The radio crackled, and Deb’s voice filled the room—too loud for Waylon’s taste. “Sup, Waylon. How’s the wicked witch of Weldon?”
“Why don’t you ask her? She’s standin’ right here.” He chuckled at poor Deb’s expense.
“Oh . . . oh, sorry ’bout that, Mrs. Luckabee. I was just—”
“It’s all right, Deb. She can’t hear ya. She’s deader than Kevin Spacey’s actin’ career.”
“Oh, crap! Really?”
“Yep. In fact, you can call her whatever you want; she ain’t comin’.”
“Well, ain’t you nice? Didn’t your mama ever tell you to never speak ill of the dead? Though I guess we can make an exception in ol’ Mabel’s case. It ain’t like she’s gonna mind. Ya know, I don’t mean the old gal no disrespect, but the only way I’m gonna be able to squirt a tear during this here tender moment is if I yank out a nose hair.”
“Whatever. Listen, call in a—”
WEEEE! Waylon bent his head away from the radio's high-pitched whine. “Deb, are you there?” The radio started to cut in and out. He intermittently heard Deb attempting to speak to him.
“Way . . . where . . . can’t . . . get out . . .”
Struggling to communicate with Deb, Waylon retreated downstairs in search of a better signal. “Deb? Can you hear me?” He was relieved when she answered.
“Yeah, I can hear you, but barely. You keep bobbin’ and weavin’ on me. Listen, I’ve already let Dave—I mean the sheriff—know about Mabel. I won’t repeat what he called her. He’s still on his fishin’ trip, so he won’t be there till almost sunup. I also contacted the first responders down in Camfort, but they’re at least a half-hour out. Said the storm had caused some tree and powerline damage, so it may be even longer. Just sit tight until they arrive. In the meantime, I’m gonna need you to secure the scene and keep watch.”
“Keep watch? You mean like in babysittin’ a dead body till the meat wagon and the sheriff arrive?”
“Listen, Waylon. I know it seems like a big deal when you’re new and all, but it’ll be okay. Just make sure you don’t disturb nothin’; the sherriff’ll take care of the scene. Just go ahead and start your report.”
“Geez, Deb. Of all the corpses to be locked in with on a stormy night, I had to draw Mabel Luckabee’s.” A low hum came over the radio. “Deb? Deb, you there?” Silence. Waylon sighed at first, then decided to make light of his predicament. He held the radio's mic up to his face and announced, “Well, hey there, all you night owls. You’re listenin’ to WAYN where the hits just keep ooon comin’.”
Then, like a bad omen, the pounding rain returned with a vengeance.
Waylon went back upstairs to check out the rest of the second floor. He was happy to find that the upper floor rooms were not as cluttered and dirty as downstairs. When he finished his exploration, he went into Mabel’s bedroom, took out his cell phone, and snapped some pics for his report. Once he got that out of the way, he shut off the TV and headed back downstairs to look for coffee. He was halfway down when he heard a loud click, followed by the sound of the TV coming on. “The heck is that all about?”
Waylon re-entered Mabel’s bedroom. The old tube television was on and Mabel’s body was propped up on the pillow again. Waylon was unnerved and bewildered. Say, wasn’t she . . . He watched the lifeless body for a few seconds. When it didn’t move, he turned off the antiquated boob box, then walked to the door.
It was on again. He was adhered to the floor, afraid to turn around. He was relieved to observe that when he did—and with only a tad of guilt—Mabel was still dead as a brick. Waylon figured the mystery had a reasonable explanation, so he shifted into seasoned cop mode. He told himself that all he was dealing with was a prehistoric television, plugged into the wall socket of an old, rickety house with suspect wiring. Piece-a-crap television. Thing’s older than Moses’s babysitter. Waylon reached behind the TV and yanked its cord from the wall, then glared at the blank screen. “Now shut the heck up, or I’m gonna take out my gun and go Scarface on ya.”
He made his way down to the kitchen and began looking through the cracked, faded cabinets for some much-needed java. It took a lot of searching, but he finally found an ancient jar of freeze-dried coffee. The jar was sticky, the grounds clumped together like a rich, robust hockey puck. Waylon guessed that someone had likely purchased the brown muck sometime during the Clinton administration. Has it come to this? Do I really need caffeine this bad? Begrudgingly, he accepted that he did.
He turned his search toward finding a clean cup, as well as something in which to boil water. He flipped on one of the stove’s burners and started digging around. When he saw a relatively clean mug, he lifted it as if he’d found the Holy Grail and sang, “Ta-da!”
There was a brilliant flash of lightning, followed by floor-shaking thunder. Then the power went out. Our Sweet Lady of Perpetual Nonsense, what now? Waylon grabbed his defiled Maglite from his belt and went looking for the fuse box. He didn’t have to look for long—there was one located inside the kitchen’s walk-in pantry. Waylon inspected the black briquette that was once the main fuse. Deader than a mean, old woman in a farmhouse bedroom.
CREEEAK . . . Dust and dirt trickled down onto Waylon's hat like grimy rain. The sharp noise came from the room directly above him: Mabel's bedroom. His knocking knees betrayed his fear, as his breath retreated into his lungs, refusing to come out. On the one hand, he knew it was his duty to check on things. But the other hand was telling him to grab the rest of his body and run like a crack-addled gazelle into the raging night. He settled the internal argument by siding with the more sensible hand. Waylon much preferred braving the torrential rain and sitting in his cruiser to staying in what he was rapidly coming to consider the redneck version of Hill House. In addition, he still needed to fill out a report. He was thankful that the paperwork was in the car, thus affording him a plausible case for reasonable cowardice.
When he reached the front door, he tried the knob, but it wouldn’t turn. Then, as if on cue, a sinister cackle bled through his radio, making his arm hairs stand on end. He began to fear that a powerful supernatural force might be at play. The idea chilled him. Taking a few steps backward, Waylon warned the silent crowd of imaginary gawkers: “Stand back, y’all! I’m fixin’ to make a Waylon-shaped hole in this door!” Then an uncomfortable thought hit him. Oh, for the love of Lucy! The guys at the station’ll never let me forget it if I run like a little girl from a spooky, old house. Gotta tap into my inner Chuck Norris and handle this case like one of the big boys. He drew what he could from his shallow puddle of courage and ventured back upstairs to inspect Mabel’s bedroom again.
When he got there, his first act was to locate the source of the noises. Confusion collided with unease as he observed that nothing, including the recently departed Mabel, had moved. However, the lack of activity only served to make him more nervous. "Screw the guys. I’m done with this place."
As he was leaving, the bedsprings squeaked, followed by the unsettling sound of someone scampering away. Waylon turned around and saw that Mabel was literally dead and gone. His skin tingled at the implications.
He shined his Maglite around the lightless room, praying that the formerly deceased woman wouldn’t come running at him from one of the pitch-dark corners. Despite the massive storm bellowing outside, the world fell silent for Waylon. The weight of his dread submerged his entire mind in a cold, black pool of fear and disbelief.
“Where’s Steve and Elma?” the scratchy voice said.
Waylon spun around several times, the flashlight’s beam hopping around the room like a bouncing ball of light. Suddenly, bare feet slapped across the wooden floor, as the thing rushed into the bedroom closet, slamming it shut.
“Mrs. Luckabee? That you?”
The closet door creaked open halfway and a shadowy figure crawled out. Its neck made a cracking sound as its head swiveled in Waylon’s direction. Glowing yellow eyes peered up at him, numbing his quivering body. He focused a funnel of light on the thing dressed in a nightgown. Mabel’s contorted body looked like a pretzel playing a game of Twister. Her breathing was quick and shallow, her frame heaving with every pant. As soon as the light settled on her crinkled face, she squealed and scuttled under the bed.
Waylon’s twitchy hand rested on the butt of his service revolver. With great wariness, he plodded over to Mabel’s last known resting place.
“Why don’t you join me down here, Don and Linda’s boy?” the voice growled.
Icy dots spread across Waylon's sweaty body like frigid spiders skittering on bare skin. Against his better judgment and basic common sense, Waylon lowered his head toward the floor. Alabaster arms shot out of the mattress, and gnarled hands seized him by his hat. Screaming, he twisted his head free of the ghostly grip.
Waylon sped from the bedroom and toward the staircase. After a few clumsy steps, his feet flew out from under him, landing him on his backside. Helpless against gravity, he tobogganed down the steps, farting loudly with each violent bounce.
Finally, his noisy hindquarters found the bottom of the stairs. After pulling himself up, Waylon returned to the locked front door. Grabbing the knob with both hands, he used all his strength to turn it, but his efforts proved fruitless. He pressed the button on his radio. “Deb! For the love of the Lord, please answer me!” The radio was still dead. His next idea was to try to break out through one of the windows.
Waylon ran to the living room and tried opening one, but it wouldn’t budge. He pushed up on the next one. Same result. Desperate, he grabbed a small coffee table and hurled it against the window. It bounced off the glass like a tennis ball. He was about to use his gun to help improve his luck when a coffee mug went sailing past his head, shattering against the impenetrable window. He whirled around and saw the lower back part of Mabel’s nightgown disappearing around the kitchen doorway.
Waylon yanked the gun from its holster, gripping it tightly in his right hand while holding the Maglite in the other. “That’s enough, now! This is Deputy Sheriff Waylon Dupree! You better make yourself known!” There was a movement in the dining room. He went to investigate.
The dust from the many items stacked around the dim room flittered in the bright ray of the flashlight. His nerves were bouncing around inside him like a pinball. He steered the beam around the dining room.
“I hope you all show up in droves,” the husky voice said.
“Quittin’ time!” Waylon sprinted to the front door, where he fired every round in his gun directly at the useless doorknob, only to have them rebound off. His heart was racing as if it were qualifying for the Daytona 500. “Let me outta here! Whoever you are, please just let me go, and I’ll jump in my squad car and leave right now!”
Footsteps emanated from the front sitting room. Waylon heard the crackling sound of a phonograph needle making contact with the vinyl. An old-school, swing-style, dance number reverberated throughout the downstairs. He recognized the tune as one his grandma used to listen to whenever she decided to up the dosage of what she called her “happy time nerve medicine.” It was an old Judy Garland song from the 1960s called, “Come On Get Happy”. Soon, Judy’s voice chimed in with a bouncy beat.
Forget your troubles come on get happy / You better chase all your cares away
Shout hallelujah, come on get happy / Get ready for the judgment day
Waylon raised his flashlight and gun, now empty, and entered the dark room. His body became one large icicle. The late Mabel Luckabee, her back to him, stood in front of a large, wooden stereo cabinet, swaying in time with the tinny-sounding tune.
“M-m-Mrs. Luckabee? M-Mabel, ma’am?”
She stopped moving and snapped to attention.
Waylon continued. “The station house sent me here to ch-ch-check on ya. You was upstairs
dead, but clearly, you’re feelin’ better, so I g-guess I’ll be leavin’ now.”
Waylon watched slack-jawed and bug-eyed as the moving corpse levitated and spun around to face him. He aimed the flashlight at her, accentuating her face’s pallor. Her yellow eyes blazed with raw hatred. His mind was yelling at him to escape, but his body refused to cooperate. He struggled to work up enough spit to speak. “M-m-Mrs. Luckabee, I just w-wanna leave and—”
"—NOOO!" The shrill sound, coupled with the force of her voice, caused all of the first-floor windows to burst outwards. Her body flew through the air at Waylon.
Shrieking, he hurled his Maglite at Mabel. Finally, his mind and body got on the same page, and he fled from the flying corpse. Waylon turned and ran straight for one of the pane-less windows, launching himself like a twirling meat missile.
After landing on the front porch, he rolled into the railing with so much force that his body busted through it and out into the yard. The violent impact made him look like a human bowling ball landing a perfect strike. Just as he was pulling himself up from the thick, brown mud, he heard a siren in the distance. Thank-you-Jesus-thank-you-Jesus-thank-you-Jesus!
The EMTs were the first on the scene. Dave, the long-suffering sheriff, was still on his way back from his ill-fated fishing trip. They found Waylon standing in the front yard in the middle of the vicious storm, a thousand-yard stare in his eyes. The team couldn’t get anything out of him, so they had him wait in the back of the ambulance while they dealt with Mabel. After twenty minutes or so, one of the paramedics came down to grab some gear and check on Waylon, who was still shell-shocked. “You wanna tell me what happened in there?” he asked. “The windows are all busted out, and the place is a wreck. Was it like that when you got here?”
Waylon was regaining his wits. He realized that there was no scenario in which the paramedics—or anyone else—were going to believe him. Resigned to his peculiar predicament, he muttered, “Yep.”
“Well, observations like that fall under your authority anyway,” the paramedic said. “I’ll just get on with my job, then.” He began placing some items into a small vinyl bag. Before he left for the house, he turned and said, “As soon as we finish up here, I wanna take you in for a quick checkup. You look like you might still be in shock. Hell’s bells on an Easter bonnet; I thought you boys were s’posed to be used to all this stuff.”
He’d only taken a few steps when Waylon called after him. “Hey! Tell me somethin’. Where’d you find the body? Did ya see anything unusual?”
“Ya mean other than the house bein’ beat to crap? We found her upstairs in bed. She was lyin’ back on a pillow, starin’ straight ahead—creepy as all get out. She must’ve known a blackout was comin’, though.”
“She had a small Maglite in her hand.” Then he left Waylon alone to ponder his sanity.
Am I crazy, or did I let my rookie self get so worked up that I started imaginin’ things? What a wuss! He’d nearly talked himself down off the fiftieth-floor ledge of the Crazy Building when the radio in the front cab of the ambulance turned itself on. The sound of Judy Garland’s mellifluous voice pushed Waylon off the side of his mental skyscraper, as she crooned, Forget your troubles come on get happy . . .