Ched and Luella (by Lori Titus)
In which Dodger listens to Lelanea’s story.
Ched and Lelanea stared over their respective cards at Dodger, in silence.
“Well?” Dodger asked.
“Well,” Ched said as he laid down four threes and an Ace. “I think I jusht won thish hand.”
“You conniving devil!” Lelanea shouted and tossed her cards to the table. “I was sure you were bluffing.”
Pulling the sizable pot toward himself, Ched chuckled. “I told you before, I’m an exshellent liar.”
Lelanea snorted. “It’s easy to identify when you’re telling a lie.”
“Really? When ish that?”
Lelanea leaned in closer, a wicked smirk warning the not-dead man she was tired of kidding around. “When you make discernible words.”
Dodger cleared his throat, snatching the attention. With the pair now staring at him again he asked, “Did neither of you hear a thing I said?”
“Shure, sharge,” Ched said. “Shashquatch. We gotcha the firsht time.”
Lelanea, unmoved by the bloody particulars of the story, dealt the next hand. “Ante up. Seven card stud. Nothing wild. Blind. See if you can bluff your way out of this one.”
“I aim to pleashe.”
It was then that Dodger understood. The cool calm. The lack of even a remote interest in the topic. “You’re kidding me.”
“What?” Lelanea asked.
“You mean you’ve really dealt with this sort of thing before?”
Ched nodded. “Twish, if memory shervesh me.”
“It was twice, though the second time hardly qualified as dealing with.”
“What happened?” Dodger asked.
“Ushual shtuff,” Ched said. “Tribe of nativesh up north wash havin’ shome trouble with ‘em, show the doc wash called in to try and make a way to keep the great hairy thingsh out.” Ched tossed two papers into the middle of the table. “Two shecondsh.”
“I’ll see your two seconds, and raise you another ten.”
“It was my bet,” Dodger said.
“Sorry,” Lelanea said.
Dodger tossed his call into the middle. “Tell me what happened? How did he keep them out?”
“Great wailing shound,” Ched said. “Drove ‘em back into the foresht. The bashtardsh.”
“And the second time?” Dodger asked.
Ched grinned. “Didn’t need to do much then. It wash a shtray on it’sh own. Thing took a shine to the Misshy.”
“No he didn’t,” Lelanea said. Though the blush that rose to her cheeks seemed to agree.
“Do tell,” Dodger said.
“Not much to tell,” Ched said. “One shecond he wash trying to take my arm off and turn over the engine cab, the next he wash cooing at our lady here.”
Lelanea pursed her lips. “That’s not taking a shine. I’ll tell you what taking a shine is.”
“Then what is it?”
“The time you dragged us all the way to California because you had a ‘feeling’ for a certain someone. I suppose that qualifies as taking a shine.”
Ched narrowed his gaze. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Oh, but I would. Get ready, Dodger. You're going to love this story.”
Dodger was the only one smiling now, and that's only because he was pretty sure the next story was bound to be a bit on the embarrassing side for the not-dead driver.
And it was about time someone else was embarrassed for once.
Ched and Luella
by Lori Titus
The setting sun was just slipping down the desert sky, leaving strands of gold and pink in its wake.
Luella had not meant to leave her laundry on the line so long. She usually tended not to go outside near twilight, especially when Ben, her husband, wasn’t home. He was in Roseville, and would be gone for a few days.
She needed to take down the white sheets that were drying in the summer sun since morning time, or risk having to wash them all over again. The winds became strong once night came, and she didn’t want dust all over them.
She was almost done, folding the last of the sheets into a basket, when she felt the pressure of a pair of eyes on her.
The figure stood just at the edge of the road, hands in pockets. His face was shadowed by a hat. The warm breeze blew, sending down the sweet, smoky, and unpleasant aroma down to her. She knew it well, and what it meant.
His eyes were fixed, unblinking, and there was a pure intensity in the stare.
Yet, there was something different about this one.
Luella knew very well when she was in the presence of the undead. All her life they had come to her unbidden. This dead soul still inhabited his flesh. But she also knew that he was not here to kill her. If he had meant harm, she would have felt him coming from miles away.
Instinctively, Luella’s hand crept to her thigh, where the metal of her pistol pressed with a protective weight into her flesh.
The zombie didn’t move. He seemed mesmerized.
She did not turn her back on him, but lifted her basket and edged into the back door of her house. Once inside, she peered out the window.
The fellow was no longer standing in the spot where he was before. Instead of coming to her, or after her, he was walking silently up the road, taking his leave from her.
The next morning, Luella woke late, and disoriented, with dryness in her throat. It was barely nine in the morning, but the heat had already settled in. The first thing she did was to fill her glass with water.
Staring out the window, she saw the man.
He was no closer than he had been the evening before, but the sight of him standing in the sunlight made her shudder. He moved his head, ever so slightly, a look to her that appeared painfully stiff. He tapped his hat. If she had been closer, she would have heard him mutter, “’mornin, Mish.”
Ched saw the lady walking towards him. As far as he’d traveled to get here, now that she was real, only feet away from him, he almost wanted to turn and run.
It took some finagling to get the Sleipnir across the California Mountain passes to reach Lazarus. He’d been driven by something that he couldn’t explain. First, he’d say he dreamed of her, if he ever slept the way a normal man did. But the image of her face at some point, crept across his consciousness. From the time the train made its way across the border from Nevada, he knew where he was going. And that this woman was drawing him there.
He told no one of his plan. When asked why he wanted to come to Lazarus, he simply said it was a place he’d heard of, and that he was curious about. The Professor simply sighed and shook his head. The man surely knew a lie when he heard one, even if he had not bothered to call Ched on it.
Ched wondered what in his gravelly voice, or fixed expression could have given him away. But that was how it always was with the Professor. He just knew things, without a soul bothering to tell him.
She was as beautiful as he imagined, maybe more so. In the time that he had been not-dead, Ched learned to recognize that there was a beauty to anything that held life within it. Never a man that thought much of spiritual things, he could sense brightness in this woman, a certain calm. Something about her was so full of life. Like a bright beacon, she drew dark things to her across a barren landscape.
Ched was surprised that she smiled at him as she approached, a little grin that tugged on the edges of her mouth. Her dark eyes regarded him without fear, and that realization sent a sort of pain flooding through his core. Since he had been like this, there was no one that looked upon his countenance without fear, or disgust. Sure he had the odd gal that would look over his carcass, but none that looked right at it without flinching. In fact, there were few that even looked at him like this back when he was living flesh, which hadn’t been the case for some time.
“I don’t think it’s the best idea, you standing out in this hot sun, sir,” she said. “My name is Luella. And you’re…?”
“I’m Ched. Nish ta meet ya, Mish Luella, but I know who ya are.”
She laughed. “Well, that being said, would you like to come sit in the shade?”
Luella walked beside him, careful not to get too close. His face was that of a grinning skull, his skin leathery and sallow. She showed him to a seat on her porch and he settled his bones into it gently. His eyes were slow to move in his head, but they followed her movements. It slowly dawned on her that this man, dead though living, watched the sway of her hips. When she looked back at him, he looked down, like an embarrassed little boy. If there had been blood flowing in those cheeks of his, he would have blushed.
“I can offer you some whiskey,” she said softly. “Would that do?”
“Yesh, jush fine, thank ya ma’am.”
She already had a bottle sitting on the edge of her window, and she poured him a glass. He understood the porch was as far into her territory as she would let him go.
“I take it othersh like me come callin’?” he asked.
“None like you,” Luella said softly. “The zombies that try to find me have vengeance in mind. I don’t remember ever entertaining one. I hope that does not insult you.”
“Naw, ‘shposhe it’sh an honor.”
Luella sat down across from him. “Do you know why you’re here, exactly?”
He put his glass down. It took effort to meet her eyes, but it helped that she looked at him kindly.
“I wish I knew how ta shay it. I shaw your fash. And I felt… shomethin’. I don’t reckon I feel much theshe days, and nothing like thish for a long time. I knew where you were. Closher I got, shtronger it kep’ getting.”
Luella nodded patiently. “There’s something about me that draws the dead to me. No one has ever been able to really explain why. It could be chemical, or spiritual, but it’s real, either way.”
“Like love. Maybe there ain’t way of explainin’ it.”
“That could be true. Do you remember being in love, Ched? Back in your living days?”
He just stared at her for a time. How could he explain that this pull towards her, this nameless need, was deeper than anything he could remember feeling? “I guesh so. When I wash nine. I loved a lil gal named Roshalie.”
Luella smiled. “Oh?”
“Lil redhead with a shweet shmile. She kished me onsh, and then she ran. I chashed her until I caught ‘er and kished ‘er back.”
Ched looked down at his hands. He felt woefully inadequate. Rosalie was nothing compared to this grown man love that moved through him now. Luella continued to stare at him with her pretty brown eyes.
“I think you followed your compass here, much as the others did,” she said in a soothing voice. “It’s not love, it’s something else. But you’re right, it’s not something to be explained.”
“I am shorry to have bothered ya, ma’am…”
“No, not at all. Rest for a bit. You can stay for a while, can’t you? Leave when it’s closer to sundown.”
She stood, and put a hand on the shoulder of his jacket, easing him back into his seat.
“I hope you don’t feel that you have been passed by,” Luella said. “I did before I met my husband. You have a second chance. Surely some lady will appreciate you.”
Ched shrugged. “I don’t think sho.”
“I do,” she said.
He tried, as best as he could, to smile. The expression lit something in his eyes.
“Tell me about your travels,” Luella said, taking a seat again. “What do you think about California?”
Ched reckoned he liked California just fine.
Lori Titus is the author of Lazarus, a novella about zombies, magic, and resltess living folk in Old California. She is also the Managing Editor of Flashes in the Dark, a website that features horror short stories. For more information about upcoming projects, including The Marradith Ryder Series, follow her on Twitter as Loribeth215 or on her blog, http://loribeth215.wordpress.