Dale Bailey received degrees in Literature from the University of Tennessee and teaches at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, North Carolina.
His first novel, The Fallen, is a tale of supernatural horror that has been compared to the early work of Stephen King.
Daddy left with a big-city dollymop when I wasn't but six years old, and Mama got a job tending the corpse gardens outside of Scary, Kentucky. By the time I was twelve, a tow-headed not-quite boy in his daddy's hand-me-down jeans, I remembered the dollymop better than I did the man himself. She was a loud, brash redhead with tits like jugs and a mouth like a wound, but Daddy had faded to a dull blur of memory. I couldn't for the life of me remember how he looked and Mama said the resemblance was minimal; but I could remember how it felt when he touched me, and if I tried I could still smell his jackleg whiskey and the black-market smoke that always hung about him. Mostly, though, I could recollect his hands. I used to lie awake nights, fingering over that memory in my mind, like a miser with a bag full of gold—the memory of those big, callused hands against my face and the sound of his voice when he said, "You're the man of the house now, Kemp. You've got to take care of your mama." That was just before he left—I remember the dollymop waiting in her car, while Mama cussed them both in the background—and I hadn't seen either one of them since.
Mama claimed this particular memory was a lie, but when it came to Daddy, Mama had her own issues, and I'd learned not to press her on them. I took what I had—the dollymop and her tits, Daddy and his hands—and let Mama do her own grieving.
Meanwhile we moved to Scary, Kentucky.
The good folks of Scary didn't cotton to outsiders, so Mama and I were pretty much alone out there with six acres of the not-quite dead. Rust-dimpled NO TRESPASSING signs hung on the razor-wire fence surrounding the compound.
BIOGENE RESEARCH FACILITY
AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
BEWARE ATTACK DOGS
they read, but I never knew of any dogs. Not that it much mattered. Mostly this all happened during the crash and people had more important things on their minds, like food. Our land was too hardscrabble to make it worth stealing, and nobody wanted to eat what we were raising anyway. The rumors were enough to keep anyone else away. When I was little, I always expected to look out the front windows one night and see a line of torches winding out of the surrounding hills, like the villagers in a flat-screen Frankenstein, but the worst trouble we ever had was townies throwing rocks at the signs on Halloween—and even that came to an end when Mama accidentally left a gate open and a couple of the kids got a glimpse into one of the growing sheds.
Me, I've never been superstitious, so the meat didn't bother me one way or the other. That was the word I used around the house, meat, mainly to bug Mama, who mostly used another term. I used to see it in the reports she sent to BioGene every month or two: anencephalic. Mama had an education—a lot of education—and I suppose that was one of the things I held against her. Mama never let me join up at the school in Scary; she said she wasn't paying her hard-earned dollar to see some second-rate hillbilly corrupt her son with nonsense. I didn't see how she reckoned her dollar hard-earned; she never did anything but tend the meat and zombie down the cyber-highways as far as I could see. But the long and short of it was that I was pretty much stuck out there in the corpse gardens with six acres of meat and one ball-busting bitch who didn't have a use for any man, much less one that sprang from the loins of her dear departed.
The way I figured it, Daddy had a lot to answer for.
* * *
* * *
The man named Smee came to our little corner of paradise in my twelfth summer. I watched the dust trail draw near from a ridge not far outside the fence-line. Most of the vehicles that came that way—and there weren't many in those days—took the branch that leads by an old logging road south to Beauty. But this one came straight on, and by the time I glimpsed the humvee itself, a dull metal flash motoring along through the trees below, I had worked out exactly what that meant.
Once upon a time Mama and I had entertained our fair share of visitors. There had been her friends from the college where she used to teach for one, and a worse bunch of cackling hens I never hope to see, but that pretty much came to an end during the crash, when it wasn't a good idea for a woman to travel alone. BioGene reps had stopped in three or four times a year as well, high profile corporate drones most of them, with faces impervious as glass and their big-city dollymops along for a squeeze. But that petered out during the crash, too. Mama said that BioGene had shifted into bio-warfare research big time by then, and we figured they'd forgotten all about their little experiment—though I suppose someone must have remembered because corporate continued to download Mama's check regular as clockwork.
Mama thought we were safer in Scary than we might be in lots of other places, so we stayed put and tended the meat because that's what we'd always done—or at least since Daddy had left, which was as close to always as I could figure when I was twelve years old. But BioGene hadn't sent one of their drones around for over four years at this point, so when I saw the humvee rumbling through the trees below I figured the stranger to be a bandit, and I lit out for home.
Mama was a bitch all right, but I'd long since decided that if anyone was going to kill her, it was going to be me.
* * *
I nearly got myself killed instead. Mama stood on the front porch with Daddy's old Mossberg in her arms and as I cornered the last of the growing sheds, she spun like a high-strung cat and leveled the shotgun right at me. Maybe I didn't really sense her finger tightening about the trigger, but I sure thought I did, and for a single frozen heartbeat I couldn't see a thing but the enormous barrel of that shotgun, hateful and deadly as a borehole to hell.
Then she kind of nodded. "Kemp," she said, and all the air went out of me in a whoosh.
"What's going on?" I said. "Who's—"
Already she'd swung the shotgun away from me. "Shut up, Kemp," she said, and someone else added, conversationally,
"Yes, lad, do shut the hell up, would you?"
I glanced into the yard and that's when I got my first look at Shamus Smee. He looked like nothing more than a drowned sewer rat, thin faced and delicate boned, with a three day beard running to gray, and furtive eyes the color of lead. He wore combat boots and a sweat-stained camo jumper, and his corded hands hung at his thighs, flexing with nervous tension. He projected a sense of contained energy, like a coiled steel spring, and when he spoke again, his clipped northern accent sounded wheedling and hostile:
"Now then, you were saying—"
"I was explaining to you and your slut how you had taken a wrong turn in Scary," Mama said. "Less you have ID"
Said slut—a waiflike twenty-something with a close-cropped head of dirty blonde and a torso-hugging mood shirt—gasped. "Shamus—" she began, the T-shirt flaring an angry red, but Smee interrupted.
"Shut up, Lush. True is true. Back to the car with you."
"Back to the car with you, I said!" He turned on her and something electric passed between them. I could feel it, sizzling in the August heat.
The blonde edged toward the humvee, parked carelessly fifteen meters from the house. Its doors stood open, internal alarms bleating like a sickly cow. Smee stood his ground.
"As I was telling you," Smee said, "BioGene has—"
"Nobody informed me that you were coming."
"I have come to relieve you. And frankly, I couldn't give two shits whether you were informed."
Mama didn't answer. She just set her mouth in a grim line and started down the steps, gesturing with the shotgun. Smee backed away, lifting his hands, palms outspread before him.
Then all hell broke loose. The blonde darted toward the humvee, her shirt flickering with anxiety, and Mama swung the Mossberg around. The shotgun jerked, spitting fire, and thunder smashed the air into millions of glittering shards. Shot kicked up dust at the blonde's heels as Smee surged toward Mama, his corded hands outstretched. Mama stepped up to meet him, reversing the shotgun like a club. And even as I realized that they'd forgotten all about me—all of them, Mama, Smee, even Smee's slinky blonde dollymop—I was moving. Not toward Smee, but toward the blonde and the humvee and whatever it was that she might have hidden inside it.
She had the head start, I had speed. I got there maybe a split second behind her, but even as she lifted the pistol from between the seats, I hurled myself through the driver's side door and grabbed for the barrel. In the enclosed space, the detonation was deafening. The barrel bulged and heat passed through my clenched fist. The bullet banged off the armored ceiling, ricocheting through the interior of the humvee like a speed-crazed bee. For a single instant, the blonde and I stared dumbfounded at one another, the pistol caught between us. Everything seemed grotesquely heightened, super real. I could feel sweat tickling between my shoulder blades, I could see the wild pulse at her temple. Mostly though, I could smell her perfume, so sweet it made my mouth water, like nothing in my life up to then.
Yanking the gun away from her, I jammed the barrel into her face and backed her out of the humvee, scrambling across the seats to follow her through the passenger-side door. My heart was racing, my breath ragged. I could hardly keep the gun steady on her.
"Don't," she whispered, and her shirt went gray with fear. She caught her lower lip beneath her teeth and her eyes widened in their orbits, but I didn't trust myself to speak. I backed away a step, angling my body so that I could see the entire yard. Smee was climbing to his feet before Mama, cradling his jaw in one hand. Mama pumped a fresh shell into the empty chamber and leveled the shotgun at Shamus Smee with a pleasant smile. "Now, then," she said, "I think you were fixing to show me some ID."
At night I walked the rows.
During the day, the corpse gardens had nothing to offer me, just endless aisles of pale emerald bodies erupting from soil-sunk pods, slick and stinking with insecticides from the overhead sprinklers. The growing sheds themselves were long narrow buildings like covered bridges, banged together from corrugated tin with Plexiglas skylights open to the Kentucky sun. Within, the bodies grew in rows, the soft inhaling, exhaling, farting, moist life of them obscured by the clatter of machinery—air conditioners and wheezers, pumps and fans. But in the night . . . in the night, you could hear them—the not-quite dead, anencephalic, brain-deprived vegetable (Oh, how rich a term!) corpse meat to which my mother had devoted her life—
You could hear them breathing.
Maybe that's how it started—just a small boy, nine, ten years old, fleeing the Kentucky farmhouse where his father did not live and where his mother bent her every waking hour to the six acres of meat beyond the peeling clapboard walls. I used to move through the moon-splashed rows, gazing down at them, their breasts heaving with the half-lives Mama had thrust upon them. Just listening, comforted somehow by the steady sigh of respiration, the slow reflexive shiftings of their mindless slumber.
That had been Mama's original plan, all those years ago when she had gotten the first BioGene grant—before the corpse gardens themselves took root, before the disorders and the crash that followed. Before Daddy abandoned her to feast on the juicy sweetmeats of his downtown whore. But no one had ever come to harvest the organs, and now, with the world winding down around us—Mama's metaphor, not mine—maybe no one ever would.
In the meantime, I found another use for them.
And so we come to a part of my tale I don't much like to think on. But I was twelve years old—think of it, twelve!—and my dreams burned like fever with half-imagined images of Daddy's dollymop, and the pleasures such a woman might confer upon me. Oh yes, I took solace among the dead.
I found her in the spring of that year, in the strange half-light of a cloud-gauzed moon that hid the color of her flesh. I must have walked past her a thousand times without paying her any attention, but that night the play of light and shadow across her body drew me to her. I stood there looking down at her, heavy breasted with dark-rouged nipples, and farther below, beyond a sweet smooth curve of belly where no umbilical knot winked its solitary eye, the honey patch that hid her sex. Like Daddy's jug-meloned grope, I remember thinking, and what I did next I did without a moment's conscious thought. Bursting with the kind of groaning lust only a twelve-year-old can know, I shucked my clothes and stood engorged in the moon-washed silence. I felt as if I had stepped over the edge of an enormous precipice. Like I was falling.
On my knees, between her falling thighs, I drove myself to the hot, wet core of her. Her ripe vegetable scent enveloped me—the moist verdure of rich soil and green things growing and sweat—and her body moved beneath me reflexively. When I brushed away the tangle of leaves that lay across her face, I saw her vacant eyes snap open to stare into the still Kentucky night, and in the same moment I felt something give way inside me. I closed my eyes as I came, and when I opened them again, the world had changed forever.
After that I tried to stay away from there, but I could not. The growing sheds and their promise of sweet, slick sin drew me back; it left me gasping, that sin, my fingers tangled in the leaf-grown tubers which bore the meat life. But it left me full. And that moonlit August night when Shamus Smee arrived in Scary, Kentucky, I found myself drawn to my accustomed place, to the corpse that so reminded me of the brassy tart who had lured my daddy into another life.
And, oh, my friends, it was sweet. It was velvet and roses, it was wine and song, and when I threw my head back and dug my fingers into the black, black loam to either side of her heaving breasts, caught in that moment of equipoise when the floodgates tremble within you—in that moment, it was sweeter still. Then the floodgates burst. I cried aloud as the shudders tore through me and I emptied myself within her. Then I opened my eyes, and that was when I saw him, silhouetted against the moonlight, watching from the open door of the growing shed, his corded hands dangling beside him:
Smee. Shamus Smee.
Copyright © 2003 by Dale Bailey
All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from
the author. This excerpt has been provided by Golden Gryphon and posted with their permission.
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For those interested, the answers to the questions are:
What was the make of the shotgun? Mossberg
How many acres of "meat" were there? six
What did Shamus Smee look like? a drowned sewer rat
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