Devastated by the death of her brother and torn apart by guilt for her part in it, the last thing Joanie needs is for him to rise from the dead seeking revenge.
Joanie is nine years old and she didn’t didn’t mean to kill Ben, but she knows it was her fault. Judging by the way her parents look at her, they know it as well. Not that they would ever say it to her. They just treat her like a child, which she supposes is better than a murderer, but not by much.
On the day of Ben’s funeral, Joanie gets her chance to earn forgiveness and prove that she’s more than just a little kid, but the stakes have never been higher. If she fails, then she and everyone she loves will be massacred by zombies.
Can Joanie stop the dead from rising? Or is this the beginning of the end? Not Quite Dead is an action packed short story about the consequences of our actions. And zombies.
The first thing she noticed was the size of the coffin. It was no more than four foot long, a deep red wood that she didn’t know the name of but mahogany was the word that came to mind. It was sitting on the dining room table, where she had eaten her Cheerio’s that morning. She stood in the doorway with her arms crossed looking at it.
She was wearing a black pleated dress with a little black ribbon around her waist. She had a matching ribbon in her hair and shiny black shoes that clacked as she walked through the hallway.
‘Are you okay Joanie?’
She turned around at the sound of her name and saw Mrs Mitchell standing in the dining room. Mrs Mitchell was old. Really old. She had curly grey hair and she wore cardigans with wool skirts. She always wore skirts.
Mrs Mitchell was Joanie’s neighbour and sometimes baby sat her and her brother.
‘I’m fine,’ said Joanie and pushed past Mrs Mitchell to get out of the room.
She stopped at the foot of the stairs. She could hear her parents talking in low monotone voices. They always spoke like that now, as if they might wake a sleeping baby if they used their normal voices.
Joanie went up to her room but once she was on the landing she decided she didn’t want to be by herself. So she went into Ben’s room.
It was a mess. Soft toys all over the floor and his bed unmade. She still remembered when he got the bed. He’d been so excited about being a ‘big boy’ but he couldn’t have slept in it more than a dozen times. Ben had nightmares and, more often than not, come morning he would be found sleeping on the floor next to her bed or in her parents’ room. He hadn’t liked sharing a bed but knowing someone was close helped put him at his ease.
Joanie bent down and picked up a teddy bear. Tried not to think about how scared he would be all alone in that coffin. She put the teddy bear on his bed and walked back downstairs, determined to keep him company for as long as she could.
Mrs Mitchell was sitting at the kitchen table and the kettle was boiling on the side behind her. ‘Hello dear,’ she said as Joanie walked in and sat down opposite.
She could see Mrs Mitchell’s grey curls peering over the top of Ben’s coffin. Joanie crossed her arms on the table and waited for Mrs Mitchell to say something. She didn’t. When the kettle finished boiling she got up and poured herself a cup of tea and sat down again.
The coffin didn’t move. She didn’t really expect it to but she watched it anyway. Inside her baby brother was laying on his back with his hands crossed over his heart. He had his eyes closed and, because Joanie was the kind of girl who liked to know about these things, she knew that most of his insides had been removed and replaced with something like cement.
Mrs Mitchell had explained that lots of other children were now alive because Ben’s organs had been given to them. Joanie didn’t care about lots of other children, she just wanted her brother back.
She wished she had told him that she loved him more.
Joanie didn’t move but the house filled with people around her. They were all dressed in black, suits and dresses, some of the women wore black mesh hats that covered their eyes. They walked past the kitchen and looked in through the door. They didn’t say anything when they saw her sitting there and that was just fine with her.
After she’d finished her tea Mrs Mitchell carried her cup over to the sink and rinsed it under the tap. ‘Time to get ready I suppose,’ she said.
Joanie didn’t reply and Mrs Mitchell left the room without another word.
‘Oh Joanie, there you are.’
She looked up and saw her Aunt Sylvia looking in at her from the door. ‘Hello Aunty Sylvia,’ she said.
Aunt Sylvia was wearing black like everyone else. She took a step into the room and then seemed to notice the coffin on the table. She stopped and held onto the door frame so tightly her knuckles turned white.
‘What are you doing in here?’ asked Aunt Sylvia. ‘You shouldn’t be in here with… that.’
Joanie looked at the little wooden box and she knew that her brother wasn’t really in there. He had never been in there. Her brother was somewhere else, gone. Burying dead bodies was just a stupid superstition. Where Ben was he couldn’t feel lonely or scared and that was good. He wouldn’t have any more nightmares.
She stood up and walked over to Aunt Sylvia. She hugged her tightly, her head nestled between her mum’s sisters chest. ‘Thank you Aunt Sylvia,’ she said.
‘Why what…’ she began to say but then stopped and just hugged Joanie back.
Joanie sat in the back seat of the car behind her mum and dad. Her dad had his arm around her mum who was resting her head on his shoulder. They were both wearing black. Neither of them had turned around to look at her or ask how she was.
The car was big and posh. All of the metal was shiny and the leather was soft and smelled like it had just been cleaned. She had her seatbelt on but they were only travelling at about twenty miles per hour so she didn’t think she really needed it.
Ben’s body was in the car ahead of them. The cherry red coffin was covered with flowers that had been arranged to spell out his name. Joanie thought it lucky that he wasn’t called something with more than three letters. Then she decided that nothing about what was happening could be described as lucky and she felt bad for thinking it. She had said a little prayer apologising to Ben.
Joanie’s parents were not religious. She didn’t think they had ever taken her or Ben to a church except for weddings or christenings. They had not had her or Ben christened.
‘What will happen to Ben’s sole?’ she asked her mum.
Her mum had buried her face in her hands and run out of the room crying. Joanie felt bad and would have gone after her to apologise but her father had sat down opposite her in the living room and taken her hands.
‘Joanie, if there is a heaven then god wouldn’t punish Ben because we decided not to have him christened,’ he said.
‘Do you think there’s a heaven?’ she said.
Her father paused and seemed to consider the question. ‘Joanie I don’t know. But what I do know is a lot of people think so. Maybe they know more than me?’
Joanie had smiled because it was what he expected. It meant she wasn’t going to ask any more questions.
She had thought a lot about heaven and god and what happened to people when they died. She had asked a lot of people that came to the house. They all gave her conflicting information or asked her what she thought. She smiled at those people as well because they didn’t want her to ask any more questions.
That morning she had asked Mrs Mitchell why no one could give her a straight answer about what happened to people when they died.
‘It’s because no one really knows darling,’ said the old lady. ‘Some people say they do and maybe they believe it, but they don’t really.’
‘So why do they say it if they don’t know?’
‘To make themselves feel better I suppose.’
Joanie nodded. She didn’t ask Mrs Mitchell what she thought because that didn’t seem to matter anymore. No one knew what happened to you when you died so she could make up her own answer and it would be just as true. ‘I think that when we die we stay with our family,’ she told Mrs Mitchell while the old woman sipped her tea. ‘We look after them and we make sure they’re alright.’
Mrs Mitchell had smiled but she was crying too. When Joanie asked her what was wrong she shook her head and said: ‘Nothing. It’s just such a lovely thought Joanie. It means Mr Mitchell is right here with me.’
The car stopped in front of the church. It was an old building made of grey bricks. St. Valen’s church; Joanie had gone there once on a school trip.
She could see people inside the church. Some of them were sitting down but most of them were standing.
The car carrying the coffin was in front of them still. Four men in black suits were standing behind it with their heads bowed. Joanie watched from the back seat of the car as one of the men opened the back and with great ceremony slid out her brother’s coffin.
‘Joanie,’ said her mother.
She turned and saw her dad holding the car door open. Her mother’s face was mostly hidden behind a black veil but Joanie could see her puckered mouth that meant she was angry.
She slid across the seat and felt her black dress pull up under her bum. She pressed it down and climbed out. When she looked across at the other car she saw that the four men were balancing the wooden box on their shoulders.
The sound of people talking in the church had stopped. She could hear an organ playing solemn music that she didn’t recognise.
The men with the coffin walked forwards. Her dad reached out for her hand and she gave it freely. It felt cold but strong and reassuring. She, her mum and her dad, followed the men with the coffin into the church. It was, she thought, like being a ghoulish bridesmaid.
Joanie had been a bridesmaid the year before at her Aunty Meryl’s wedding. Aunty Meryl was her dad’s younger sister. It was the last time, before today, that Joanie had been in a church.
Aunty Meryl had wanted Ben to be a pageboy but her mum had said he was too young. That same night, after she’d drunk too many glasses of wine, Joanie heard her mum tell her dad that Ben could be a pageboy at Aunty Meryl’s next wedding.
Joanie looked around as they walked into the church and saw Aunty Meryl sitting by herself in the second row. She realised that Ben wouldn’t get to be a pageboy at her next wedding and she didn’t think she would want to be a bridesmaid either. She didn’t think she would want to step foot in a church again after burying Ben.
Mrs Mitchell was sitting a little further back. She had changed into a plain black dress that looked like it was itchy.
The four men placed the coffin on a small table at the front of the room. As her mother passed it she paused, bowed her head and whispered something under her breath. When he passed her dad did the same and when it was her turn Joanie copied them.
‘Goodbye Ben,’ she said. ‘You were a good brother and I’m sorry I stole your bunny.’ She felt like she would cry if she said anymore so she followed her parents to the front seats and sat down next to her mum.
Her mum reached out for her hand and squeezed it gently. Joanie could feel the residue of tears on her skin.
The music came to an abrupt end and a man in dark robes walked in through a door at the side of the stage. He paused in front of the giant cross, bowed his head and moved his right hand across himself. Then he turned around to face them.
‘It is a terribly sad occasion that brings us here today,’ he said. His voice was deep and resounded around the large open space. There was a constrained joy to it, as if he knew, or thought he knew, something the rest of them didn’t. ‘Nevertheless it is a testament to the special boy that Ben was that so many of you are here.’
Every seat in the room was taken and there were more people standing at the back. So many that they were cascading out the door. Joanie looked around at them and saw many faces both familiar and not. She didn’t think that Ben had met that many people in his whole life.
‘Ben was a beloved son and brother. His family cherished him deeply. He was a gentle soul and never caused harm to anyone.’
Joanie felt her face flush and it seemed that everyone in the room had turned to look at her. Ben really was a beloved brother but he had not been as innocent as all that.
They lived on the outskirts of Wreathing. Far enough away from the chaos of the city but close enough that the town centre was accessible by bus. They had moved there from the city centre when she was three ‘near the good schools’.
They had neighbours; Mrs Mitchell and, for a year or so, her husband Mr Mitchell. On the other side there were the McAlister’s first and then the O’Neil’s. There was lots of land around them, open fields that contained horses and cows, small wooded areas where her dad promised she could go to climb trees when she was older.
Four years after they has moved there her mum has become pregnant and shortly after her seventh birthday she had been presented with a little brother called Ben.
Joanie has been besotted with Ben. She was always pestering her mum to let her hold him and she was fascinated by the way he fed from her mums boobs.
‘That’s how you used to be fed,’ said her mum but Joanie hadn’t believed it until her father had shown her photographs.
Joanie had already been at primary school by the time Ben came along so she was out of the house during the day. But she took pictures of him in to show her friends and her teachers who affectionately thought of him as her mascot. Or perhaps her as his cheerleader. Whenever she got the chance she would invite her friends around to meet him and play with him, so much so that soon her mum and dad had to put a stop to it. He was just a baby; he didn’t want to be handed around like a pass the parcel.
The vicar had stopped pacing around delivering vague niceties about how loved Ben was. He stood behind the podium and glanced down at his notes from time to time.
‘Ben had only started to talk a few months ago,’ said the vicar. ‘He was a late developer in that respect. When he did speak though he didn’t waste time with baby talk. The first thing that Ben ever said was, ëI love you mummy.’
The people gathered to watch the ceremony ëaah’d’ but Joanie knew that wasn’t the true story. Ben might not have started with baby talk like she had but he’d been talking for longer than her mum and dad knew.
Joanie prided herself that she and Ben had a special relationship. That they were closer than most brothers and sisters. She liked to play games with him, even though the games he liked to play were much too young for her and he got distracted easily. She let him sleep in her room when he had nightmares and that wasn’t usual. She liked to share things with Ben and the two of them spent a lot of time together.
So was it really that surprising that ‘Joanie’ was the first word he said?
Well, she thought it was the first. It had certainly come weeks before the infamous ëI love you mummy’ speech. They had been playing with his toy rabbits. He loved those things, a little family of soft bunny rabbits that wore cute outfits like waist coats and top hats. She had been playing with them anyway, he was just happy to sit in his chair and watch her moving them around in front of him.
Joanie watched the vicar because she could hear her mum crying and if she saw her cry, she would cry too. So she kept her eyes on the man in the frock and listened as he somehow spun Ben’s two year long life into the tale of someone who had lived a full and happy life.
She could hear other people crying as well. Tears were being muffled by tissues all around the room. She didn’t want to cry, not in front of all these people.
‘Now I believe we have Audrey Mitchell who would like to say a few words about Ben?’ said the Vicar.
At the back of the room Mrs Mitchell stood up. She was clutching a piece of paper in one hand and a navy blue hanky in the other. She walked down the central passage that separated the two sections of pews and up onto the stage beside the vicar.
Joanie noticed that she did not so much as glance at the giant cross. The vicar stepped aside and she stood behind the lectern.
‘I didn’t know Ben for very long,’ she said. Her voice was strong. ‘The sad truth is that none of us did.’
Joanie remembered the day her dad had taken her to the hospital to meet her baby brother. They were outside the ward at quarter too, ready to be let in at six when visiting hours commenced. Despite her dad telling her she had plenty of time to get changed Joanie was still in her school uniform.
She remembered the first time she’d held him, sitting in the green plastic chair with her arms out. Her dad had placed little Ben on her lap. He had been warm and she had felt his little heart beating as he sucked in tiny gasps of air. His breathing had seemed funny and she’d asked her dad about it but he’d told her all babies breathed like that. Ben had smelt milky and he’d waved his arms around. When he’d opened his mouth to yawn she’d seen his funny toothless gums.
She remembered leaning forward and kissing him on the cheek. His skin had been as soft as a kitten’s fur. It had been love at first sight for her and she’d promised herself she would look after her baby brother no matter what.
Two years later and her promise was broken. When Mrs Mitchell sat down she did it with her hanky pressed against her mouth. The woman sitting next to her, who Joanie didn’t recognise, put a hand on her shoulder and whispered something in her ear.
The vicar thanked Mrs Mitchell. Joanie could hear the organ playing very softly in the background. The vicar announced that they were going to sing ‘All things bright and beautiful,’ which was apparently one of Ben’s favourite songs. Joanie doubted he’d ever heard it; he was much more into Rasta Mouse than church hymns.
She stood with everyone else and mouthed the words because she didn’t know them. She watched the vicar because she could feel her mum trembling with tears beside her and she didn’t want to look at that big cross. She also didn’t want to look at the cherry wood box they had put her brother’s body in.
When the song was over they sat down. Joanie had a program in front of her. It was made of expensive cream coloured card with silver edging. There was a picture of Ben smiling and holding up his favourite bunny on the front.
She didn’t want the funeral to be over. Her dad had told her that funerals were where you said goodbye to people that you loved. That meant that once you’d finished saying goodbye they were gone. After a funeral you were supposed to get on with your life. Although, she supposed, she had really said goodbye to Ben a week ago when she’d stolen his favourite bunny.
His name was Mister Fixer and he had a tool belt and hard hat. He even had little tools that slotted into sections of the belt. He had a yellow jacket and blue trousers, he was Ben’s absolute favourite, the one he took to bed with him at night and insisted on carrying around the house with him.
She hadn’t meant to steal it, it had only been a joke.
Ben had been getting on her nerves ever since she had broken up for the summer holidays from school. It wasn’t that she didn’t still love him and everything but he was just always there and since he’d started talking he hadn’t stopped. She wanted to watch television and play computer games, chat with her friends online and watch silly videos. Yes, she wanted to spend time with him as well, but not all the time.
That morning, that fateful morning, she had been laying on the sofa wearing her pyjamas, her computer on her lap and cartoons on the television. Her mum was cleaning in the next room and Ben was on the floor playing with his rabbits, narrating the story he was creating to her.
The phone rang and she could hear her mum’s voice, muffled by the wall between them. Something clunked and then her mum appeared around the corner. ‘I have to go out,’ she said.
Joanie barely even looked up.
Her mum hurried past into the hallway where Joanie could hear her opening the cupboard and taking out her coat. ‘Mum it’s not cold out,’ she called.
‘What was that?’ asked her mum, sticking her head around the door. She looked flustered.
‘Are you alright?’ asked Joanie.
She shrugged on her coat and pulled her hair out of the collar. ‘I’m fine. It’s Mrs Mitchell.’
Joanie looked up, concerned.
‘Oh don’t look like that,’ said her mum, ‘she’s fine. I just forgot that I promised to drive her to the doctors.’
Joanie nodded, she was relieved that it wasn’t anything serious. She really liked Mrs Mitchell.
‘Do you mind watching Ben? I’ll only be gone twenty-minutes.’
‘Okay,’ said Joanie.
Her mum bent down and kissed Ben on the top of the head. Through their conversation he hadn’t stopped babbling. ‘You be good for your sister,’ she said.
Ben smiled and his fat pink tongue stuck out. His eyes were wide and he looked like he had no intention of being good.
‘Love you Joanie,’ she said and kissed her on the cheek.
‘Love you too mum,’ she said.
Then the front door closed and Joanie was alone in the house with Ben. Almost at once he started to annoy her.
‘Come play Joanie,’ he said. He stood at the side of the sofa and kept trying to drop Mister Fixer in her lap. ‘Come play.’
‘Not now Ben, I’m talking to Alex.’ She looked down at her computer and saw that Alex had disconnected two minutes ago. Well she wasn’t speaking to her any more then.
‘Play Joanie, play.’
Joanie had never told her brother off, she never would have dared and she wasn’t about to start now. She looked down at him and the Mister Fixer toy he was waving at her. ‘Okay Ben,’ she said. ‘You want to play a game?’
‘Play a game, play a game.’
She held out her hand. ‘Give me the bunny then.’
He looked at her, his bottom lip pouting. This was a new game to him and not one he was sure he was going to enjoy. But Joanie was his bigger sister and if she said it was going to be fun he believed her. Reluctantly he handed over Mister Fixer, most treasured of all his bunny family.
Joanie put her computer down and stood up. ‘Now close your eyes.’
He didn’t close his eyes, didn’t look away from the bunny.
‘Don’t you want to play?’ she said.
He looked at the bunny a final time and closed his eyes.
‘Don’t open them until I tell you,’ she said. ‘Promise?’
Joanie walked out of the living room and into the kitchen. The vacuum was still on the floor where her mum had dropped it. She took a glass out of the fridge and made herself an orange squash. She stood at the sink and drank it and then she rinsed out the glass and put it on the draining board.
Ben still had his eyes closed when she got back into the living room. She sat down on the sofa and slid Mister Fixer down the back cushion.
‘Right you can open your eyes now.’
Ben looked at her.
‘The game is that you have to find Mister Fixer,’ she said. ‘He’s somewhere down stairs.’
‘Mister Fixer!’ said Ben.
He ran into the next room without waiting for further instruction. Joanie put her feet back on the sofa, picked up her computer and forget all about him.
Ben left her alone for all of ten minutes before he ran back into the room screaming; ‘Mister Fixer! Mister Fixer!’
Joanie didn’t like the tone of panic in his voice but her mum would be out for another twenty-minutes so she had plenty of time to calm him down. ‘Didn’t you find him?’ she said.
Ben shook his head and looked like he might cry. He might already be crying, sometimes it was difficult to tell until the full on raging storm took hold.
‘Did you try looking under the cat’s bed?’ she said.
Ben brightened at that suggestion and without another word he turned around and ran back into the kitchen.
Once he was out of sight Joanie reached behind the cushion and pulled out the bunny. She dusted it down and put it on the cushion next to her ready for when he came back.
But Ben didn’t come back and now he was never coming back. When her mum came home the ambulance was already there. Joanie had called them because when she went to find Ben a couple of minutes later he had been laying on his back in the middle of the kitchen floor. Not breathing. The doctor said he had choked on his tongue when he slipped over.
Joanie stood for what the program said was the last time. To bow their heads and say the Lord’s Prayer. All around her there was silence and before the vicar could begin she heard the knocking.
She looked around to see if anyone else had noticed it but they had their heads down and their eyes closed.
‘Our father who art in heaven…’ began the vicar.
Joanie looked at Ben’s coffin and the knocking continued, slow measured. It sounded like it was coming from the box. She continued to watch and it seemed to move.
Excitement bubbled up inside her. A hope that she could not quite let herself believe.
‘…Give us this day our daily bread…’
There was a good chance she was going mad but she didn’t think so. Even if they didn’t know where it was coming from a few people near the front had begun to look up as if they could hear something too.
‘…Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil…’
She was going to do it. She had to. She would want Ben to do it for her if their positions were reversed. Better suffer a moment of embarrassment than live with the thought that Ben had still been alive when they’d buried him.
‘…forever and ever, Amen.’
The ‘Amen’ was repeated around the church and no one noticed that Joanie had left her seat.
They noticed by the time she got to the front. The vicar looked down at her from his platform. ‘Hello Joanie,’ he said and he smiled.
‘Joanie get back here,’ said her mum.
Joanie ignored both of them and walked along the front to Ben’s coffin. The knocking was louder than ever and she really could see it move.
‘He’s trying to get out,’ she said.
A few muttered voices behind her and then a hand on her shoulder. She turned around and saw her dad but he wasn’t looking at her, he was looking at the coffin as well.
‘What’s going on here?’ he said to the vicar who had joined them. Joanie’s mum was there too with her hands over her mouth. ‘Is this some sort of joke?’
The vicar had his mouth open and shook his head.
Her dad looked at her mum and then back at the coffin.
Joanie stepped aside to let him through.
He reached out towards it nervously, as if he thought it might electrocute him. ‘Ben?’ he said.
The movement of the coffin stopped but the knocking continued. Her dad looked at her mum again and then he started to lift up the lid.
They all blamed themselves: her mum said she never should have left Joanie and Ben alone; her dad said he should have laid carpet in the kitchen like he had been planning to. But Joanie knew that it was her fault really. She was the one who stole Mister Fixer and got Ben so worked up that he’d gone running into the kitchen as fast as he could.
He was dead before the paramedics arrived. The woman pulled his tongue out of his throat and the man gave him mouth to mouth. But Ben’s skin was blue and he hadn’t been breathing for a long time.
Her dad arrived home and they drove behind the ambulance to the hospital. Joanie had never seen her dad cry but he did then. He couldn’t even ask her what had happened but she told him anyway: ‘I took Mister Fixer,’ she said. ‘He was looking for him.’
‘Joanie,’ said her dad but he didn’t look at her. ‘It’s not your fault.’
But she knew it was.
At the hospital they were taken to a little room with yellow walls. There were two grey sofas that didn’t look very comfortable. There were leaflets called things like ‘Coping with Bereavement’ on the coffee table.
The door opened and Joanie’s mum came in with the doctor. Her eyes were red and puffy. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. The doctor was an old man with grey temples and little glasses that perched on the end of his pinched nose.
‘Please have a seat,’ said the doctor, his voice was soft.
Joanie sat down between her mum and dad.
‘My name is Doctor Logan,’ said the doctor. He didn’t sit down. ‘And first of all let me say how very sorry I am for your loss.’
‘I’m sorry for your loss’ was a phrase that Joanie would hear a lot over the next few days. Soon it lost all meaning. The only thing she heard when people said it was ‘You killed him. You’re the one to blame’.
Joanie’s new shoes squeaked as she stood on the tips of her toes to look inside the coffin.
Ben was lying on his back with his eyes closed. His chubby little hands were clasped over the place where his heart would have been if it wasn’t inside some other little boy. There was a faint smile on his face.
‘I don’t understand,’ said her dad.
‘What did you expect?’ asked her mum. She was upset again.
Her dad nodded and turned to close the lid but something stopped him.
Joanie saw Ben’s fingers sticking out the side of the coffin, the lid was resting on them. ‘He’s alive,’ she said.
Her mum and her dad and now the vicar leaned over to look.
‘It can’t be,’ said her mum, she shook her head and Joanie couldn’t tell whether she was pleased or upset.
Her dad lifted up the coffin lid and there he was. Her little brother Ben sat up.
He turned his head from side to side but couldn’t open his eyes because they had been sewn shut. Joanie wasn’t even sure that his eyes were still in his head. He opened his mouth and she saw the dozen milk teeth that he had grown. ‘Mummy?’ he said.
Her mum pushed forward and took his hand in hers. She was crying and started kissing his face.
‘I can’t see mummy,’ he said. ‘It’s so dark.’
‘I know honey. Mummy’s right here.’
Joanie could hear people talking now and feel the press of bodies trying to move forward to see what was going on. She turned to look for the vicar but he was gone.
When Ben was very young he didn’t like bright lights. Whenever he was awake they would have to turn off the ceiling light and make do with table lamps. It was either that or put up with him crying for half an hour. When Ben started crying there were very few things that could get him to stop but Joanie usually found a way. Sometimes just the sound of her voice worked in a way neither her mum nor her dad’s did.
As he’d gotten older Ben had grown used to the light and went so far in the opposite direction that he had refused to sleep without a night light on. Even when he came and slept in Joanie’s room he would put the light on. This usually woke her up but she didn’t mind very much. She quite liked being able to look over the side of her bed and see him lying there.
It had been her dad’s idea to donate Ben’s organs when he died. He said it would help them if they knew that some other children were alive because of Ben. It would help them get over it. Joanie’s mum had said she didn’t want to get over it, she was never going to get over it, your son dying wasn’t something people were supposed to get over. But she had signed the papers and Ben’s body had been taken away so that doctors could take what they wanted.
Joanie couldn’t remember whether they had taken his eyes. She was sure that eyes could be transplanted but she didn’t know if they had taken Ben’s. Standing in the church watching him try to open his eyes it seemed important to remember. The thin skin of his eyelids stretched as he fought against the stitches. Joanie had to look away.
The other people were standing in small groups, talking together in hushed voices.
‘I can’t open my eyes mummy,’ said Ben.
She turned back to look at him. ‘It’s okay honey,’ her mum said, stroking his head. ‘Mummy will fix it.’
Joanie could still see him straining and then with a series of sickening pops the thin flesh of his eyelids tore and his eyes slowly opened.
She put a hand over her mouth.
‘Oh no!’ said her mum. ‘Darling are you okay?’
His eye lids hung loosely as if they had been stretched. The edges were frayed. The eyes beneath were dark black and shiny like marbles.
‘Mummy?’ said Ben.
‘Yes, yes I’m here,’ said her mum.
Ben turned his head in short jerky movements that reminded Joanie of a robot on television. He faced their mum and smiled. At least he opened his mouth in the shape of a smile but there was no sense of joy.
Her mum pulled him tightly against her and wrapped her arms around him. She held his head against her neck and sobbed gently. They stayed like that for a long time. Joanie looked at her dad but he was too busy watching his son to even notice her.
They had wanted another baby for a long time. Joanie knew that. She wasn’t too clear about the mechanics of ‘trying for another baby’ but whatever it was she heard the floor in their room creaking and gentle moans.
Joanie hadn’t really cared whether she got a brother or a sister or nothing at all. She was pretty happy by herself. She had friends that lived nearby and her parents were always there for her. She didn’t have to shares them with anyone else. The more she thought about it the less she liked the idea of having a brother or sister.
One day she came down to breakfast and found her parents at the table. Her dad had his arm around her mum. They were looking down at something on the table.
‘What’s that?’ she asked.
They both looked up at her and smiled. ‘This,’ said her mum, holding up what turned out to be a photograph, ‘is your little brother or sister.’
She walked over to the table and took the photograph that her dad was holding up. If she squinted she could just about make out a blob that could have been a baby.
‘See that?’ said her mum pointing at the photo. ‘That’s its nose.’
Joanie held up the photo, she supposed it could have been a nose but it didn’t seem that remarkable.
‘I think it’s going to have your nose,’ said her dad.
They smiled at each other and laughed. Joanie decided that enough was enough. This had all gone entirely too far. They hadn’t even asked her whether she wanted a brother or sister. She had to put a stop to it. ‘I don’t want it,’ she said and slapped the picture back on the table.
‘I’ll put it on the fridge,’ said her mum. She untangled herself from her dad and carried the photograph over to the fridge. There were no magnets left so she lifted one off a picture Joanie had drawn of the three of them and stuck it over that.
Joanie was furious. ‘Not the picture,’ she said. ‘I don’t want him, or her. I don’t want it.’
Joanie’s mum sat down. ‘Honey don’t say that. You’ll love having a little brother or sister.’
‘I won’t,’ she said and stamped her foot. She would have stormed out of the room if there hadn’t been things that needed to be said. ‘I don’t want it. I don’t want to share.’
‘Sit down Joanie,’ said her dad and pulled out the chair next to him.
She looked at him but sat down anyway.
‘Joanie, your mum and I love you very much. You understand that don’t you?’
Reluctantly she nodded.
‘Having another baby doesn’t mean we are going to love you any less.’
‘No, but you’ll have less time for me.’
Her dad nodded. ‘Maybe but you’ve got less time for us these days as well. You’re at school all day and you’ve got homework and friends.’
Joanie crossed her arms.
‘Joanie your mother and I are excited about having a new baby. You will love him or her. You’ll be glad, I promise.
She hadn’t believed him then or even when they found out it was going to be a boy and started talking about names and decorating the spare bedroom. Her mum had started to get bigger and Joanie imagined what it was going to be like to have a little brother to look after. She would show him all the things she loved to do and she would teach him about the world. By the time her mum started her maternity leave she couldn’t wait to meet her brother.
She had loved him, more than anything else in the world she had loved him and then he was gone. Their perfect little safe family was destroyed in a matter of minutes.
Now he was back. Now everything was going to be perfect again.
Her mum was still holding Ben but Joanie noticed that her arms had gone limp and her head was tilted back. Ben had his hands around her head like he was holding her up.
‘Mum?’ said Joanie.
Her mum didn’t answer and didn’t even look as if she had heard her. Joanie looked at her dad and saw that he was concerned.
He stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t move.
‘Let me take him,’ he said and reached out to pick up Ben.
He came away from her mum with a sticky wet sound. When he was no longer holding her she started to fall down. Joanie saw blood on her neck and an open wound with fibres and ragged flesh hanging in clumps.
Ben opened his mouth and a bloated tongue fell out. Blood and muscle fibre dribbled to the floor where it landed with a moist splat.
The room was quiet. Everyone was watching with fascinated horror.
‘Get away!’ said her father. Ben was straining to get at his dad’s neck. With great effort her dad forced himself to drop the boy.
He landed on his feet and didn’t fall down. He looked up at them and his marble eyes seemed to shine with inner darkness.
Joanie reached for her dad’s hand and pulled him a step back.
Ben looked at them and at the other faces in the small semi-circle that had formed around him. He hissed like a cat and lunged forwards.
They stepped back again and the semi-circle expanded. Joanie could hear a thumping sound and a few loud voices at the back of the room.
She pulled at her dads hand but he was rooted to the spot, his eyes transfixed on Ben. Joanie knew without having to wait for an explanation that whatever that thing was, it wasn’t her brother.
The Ben thing turned its head to scan the faces looking at it. On the floor Joanie’s mum remained still, a small pool of blood forming beneath her body which was twisted like broken twigs.
‘Dad!’ said Joanie as she tried to pull him away but he wouldn’t move.
‘Let us out!’ cried a voice from the back of the church.
Joanie turned and saw that the two huge wooden doors had been closed and, apparently, locked. She had to find the vicar and let him know but first she had to get her dad away.
‘Dad come on,’ she said, but she couldn’t make him move.
The Ben thing locked eyes with someone on the other side of the circle. It licked its lips.
Joanie turned to see who it was and then cried out, ‘oh no! Mrs Mitchell!’
Mrs Mitchell turned to look at her, a cautious smile on her face. Then Ben leaped into the air with unnatural grace. He flew about five metres and landed on her head. The old woman didn’t even have time to scream before the boy monster wrapped his arms around her head and lowered his mouth to her face.
For a moment it looked like Ben was going to kiss her in that opened mouth way her mum and dad sometimes did. After all that she had just seen that image was more than Joanie could stand, she turned away and gave her breakfast to the stone floor.
After a moment she felt a hand on her back. She flinched and started to pull away until she heard her dad say, ‘it’s okay honey. Everything’s going to be fine.’
She wiped her mouth and looked up at him, grateful that he had snapped out of his daze.
She smiled up at her dad and then they heard Mrs Mitchell fall to the floor like a sack of rocks. The voices calling to be let out were getting louder as was the thumping on the door. Joanie looked up and saw her dad turning back towards Ben.
‘Dad!’ she said in a sharp voice.
He turned back to her, his face pale. ‘Sorry.’
Ben was looking around the circle again, looking for his next victim. People were trying to back away now but they were butting up against the group who were behind the door trying to get out. No one was in charge and Joanie realised that if she didn’t do something they were all going to die, just like her mum and just like Mrs Mitchell.
She felt tears welling up but she didn’t have time for that now.
She tugged her dads arm and, reluctantly, she thought, he followed her away. She didn’t try to push into the main crowd around the door but went to the side where there was still some empty space. She passed Ben’s empty coffin and continued until she reached the wall.
High above her head there was a stained glass window but she wouldn’t have been able to reach it, even if she had stood on her dad’s shoulders.
‘What’s going on dad?’ she said, because asking him to explain an unfamiliar situation seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do.
He shook his head and she wondered whether he would have been able to speak even if he had understood.
‘Okay,’ she said without really knowing what she was going to say next. She was thinking on her feet but what else could she do? This wasn’t the sort of situation primary school had prepared her for. ‘Wait here, okay?’
Her dad nodded again but he was blank behind the eyes. If the Ben thing got her dad she would be an orphan, he was all she had left. She considered taking him with her but he would only slow her down. She would just have to hope he would be okay.
The first thing she had to do was find the vicar. He must have performed hundreds of funerals; maybe something like this had happened before. It didn’t seem likely but at least he would be able to unlock the door so people could get out.
Joanie stood on the pew next to her dad and for a moment she expected him to tell her to get down. Instead someone screamed and Joanie turned and saw Ben leap on some elderly uncle or cousin.
The woman next to him screamed and tried to pull Ben away. With a casual flick of his arm Ben knocked her to the ground. No one tried to help her up and no one took over her attack on Ben. Instead they made a circle around them and watched.
Joanie couldn’t see the vicar but the door he had come through was on the other side of the room. There were two ways she could get to the door. The first and more direct route meant walking past Ben and she didn’t want to do that. Right now he was rocking back and forth on the man’s face as if he was trying to pull it off his head.
The second route was to go through the people who were crowding in front of the door. It would take longer but she figured she stood a better chance of getting there in one piece.
She jumped off the bench and glanced back at her dad. He was staring open mouthed at the wall in front of him. She didn’t think she had to worry about him moving.
It only took a moment for Joanie to see that there was no way she was going to be able to get through the crowd. They were surging forwards as if they hoped they would be able to open the door if enough of them pushed. This meant that the people at the front and those who were right up against the door were being squashed from both sides. There wasn’t enough room to slip a knife between them, let alone a nine year old girl.
Going past Ben looked like it was the only option she had.
Joanie hesitated. She really didn’t want to go back, to see her dead mother, her catatonic father and her homicidal brother. There had to be another way.
She couldn’t go through the crowd and she couldn’t go around it which left one possibility; going above it. She considered the possibility. The scrum was about six or seven people deep and those from the middle back were bent over and pushing.
Joanie climbed tentatively onto the first back and heard the person below her grunt. She tried to stand but wobbled. A single step took her onto the next back but she quickly realised that slow and steady was likely to leave her on the floor being crushed by uncaring feet.
She stood up again and wobbled. She took a breath and leaped from back to back.
Her hair flew out behind her and she felt as if she was going to fall. But that was okay. The momentum carried her forwards and before she knew it she was on the other side. When she fell she fell onto the pew and a loud bang resounded around the church. No one seemed to notice.
She picked herself up and brushed herself down. She could see the door and there was no longer anything in her way. She ran towards it and knocked. The door swung open and she stepped inside.
It was dark and cool and smelled of cigarettes. At first Joanie didn’t think that the vicar was there. She felt for a light switch on the wall but couldn’t find one. The noise in the church behind her seemed distant and unimportant.
‘Hello?’ she said.
There was no reply but in her effort to hear one she found that she could hear muttering somewhere in the dark room.
The muttering stopped and a light was switched on. The room was much smaller than she had expected in the absolute darkness. It was barely big enough for the desk the vicar was sitting at. The walls were lined with shelves full of old books. There was a single chair on either side of the desk and a bible open on top of it.
Joanie walked across the room and stood next to the vicar. He didn’t look at her but picked up a packet of cigarettes and lit one. He blew smoke into the air and Joanie coughed.
‘I don’t usually smoke,’ he said. ‘A parishioner left these.’
Joanie didn’t understand. Didn’t he realise what was happening in the church?
‘I suppose I should be praying,’ he said, flicking ash on the open bible. ‘Somehow this seems more appropriate.’
‘Father,’ said Joanie and then couldn’t remember whether it was Catholic or Anglican priests who were called father. She couldn’t remember his name though and he didn’t seem to mind so father would have to do. ‘The door is locked.’
He nodded, sucked on his cigarette and didn’t look at her.
‘Can you unlock it?’ she said.
The vicar sighed and turned towards her. He put the cigarette in his mouth and rubbed his jaw. ‘I’m afraid you don’t understand,’ he said. ‘I locked the door myself.’
‘What do you mean?’
The vicar stubbed his cigarette out on the desktop and threw the butt on the floor where Joanie could see others had already been dropped. He closed his bible with a thud. He spun his chair around so he was facing her. ‘You’re just a child so I don’t expect you to understand. But you deserve an explanation.’
Joanie wanted to defend herself: yes she was just a child but she was doing more than a whole lot of adults to try and fix the situation. But the vicar looked a wreck. The last twenty-minutes hadn’t been kind to him: his eyes were puffy and blood shot, his skin shined with a greasy film and his hands were shaking. Joanie thought she could forgive a little condescension given the state he was in.
‘Something has gone wrong,’ he said, ‘very, very wrong. You know when I first saw your brother rise I thought it was a miracle. That all of your families prayers had been answered. Do you know the last person to rise from the dead?’
Joanie shook her head.
‘Our Lord Jesus Christ,’ he said. ‘More than two-thousand years ago.’
Joanie nodded but she felt as if she was humouring him, she didn’t believe in any of that stuff.
‘Of course, I thought to myself, the second coming. And about time, am I right?’
‘Anyway, it seemed like a miracle but it has turned into a curse. Your brother…’
‘That’s not my brother,’ said Joanie.
The vicar waved away her objection. ‘Whatever it is, it isn’t our Lord and Saviour.’
Of course it wasn’t, any fool could see that. What Joanie wanted to know was why the vicar had locked the door and what she had to do to get him to open it again. ‘What is it then?’
The vicar shrugged. ‘The anti-Christ? A zombie? Whatever it is it’s unholy and I will not let it escape.’
That made a certain kind of sense, she had to admit. The idea of that thing getting out into the world was pretty horrific. ‘So what do we do?’
The vicar turned back to his desk and lit another cigarette. ‘There’s nothing we can do.’
Joanie left the vicar and walked back into the church. At first glance everything seemed as it had been when she left. But slowly it dawned on her that the group by the door and the group surrounding Ben had merged into one. One desperate looking mosh pit surging around the room.
She turned to the front and could no longer see Ben. Her dad, however, was still sitting where she had left him.
Joanie ran across the room, pushing people that got in her way but mostly weaving between them. She grabbed her dads arm and pulled him to his feet, he co-operated like a lifeless dummy.
‘Dad!’ she said, she had to shout to hear her own voice above the wailing crowd.
He turned at the sound of her voice and smiled. ‘Joanie, there you are. Have you seen your mother and Ben?’
That was just what she needed, her father losing his mind. But now was not the time to deal with that. ‘Dad you need to come with me,’ she said.
‘No Joanie, I think it’s better if we wait here. Your mother and Ben will be back soon.’
That was pretty much what she was afraid of. But she had to move her dad somewhere safe and there wasn’t time to fix whatever had gone wrong in his head first. ‘They’re over here dad. Remember? We said we would meet them?’
Her father appeared to think about it and smiled. ‘Oh yeah, of course. I don’t know what’s wrong with me today. Come on then.’
She led them through the crowd, looking around for a sign of Ben as she did. She couldn’t see him but that, she realised, did not mean he couldn’t see them.
At the front of the church Joanie led her dad up onto the platform the vicar had been standing on. Behind that, behind the grotesquely golden crucifix there was a small recess.
They had to work out what to do but the problem was such a big one that Joanie couldn’t contemplate it all at once. It was better, she decided, to tackle one small problem at a time and hopefully that would add up to a big solution.
The first problem then was keeping her dad safe. She considered taking him into the little office where the vicar sat chain smoking but on reflection that didn’t seem like such a good idea: they were both out of their minds, whether temporarily or permanently, she didn’t like to think what they might be capable of talking each other into.
Instead Joanie led her dad as far back in the church as possible. This was an area never meant to be seen by the worshipping masses. It was like being back stage at Disney Land. There were half empty cups of coffee tucked behind platforms and paint tins on the floor.
Joanie kept looking for Ben but she didn’t see him and she couldn’t hear him. It occurred to her that he might have found a way out and that she was only jumping at shadows.
She tucked her dad behind the cornice. There was a little wooden door next to him but she didn’t think he would fit inside it. She let go of his hand.
‘Wait here, okay?’
‘Is this where we’re meeting mum and Ben?’
Joanie nodded and then thinking on her feet added: ‘don’t you remember? You’re playing a game with Ben.’
‘A game?’ he said, ‘What sort of game?’
‘He’s trying to find you and you’re trying to stop him. So if you see him hide.’
He nodded but didn’t look convinced. ‘What about your mum?’
Joanie thought about it and didn’t think there was much chance of him seeing her. ‘That’s fine, you’re allowed to see mum.’
‘Stay hidden, remember?’
‘Oh yes, of course.’ He ducked behind the cornice.
Joanie waited there a moment to see if he would reappear but he didn’t.
The next thing she needed to do was find a way out. She wondered if the better course of action might be to find Ben and try to stop him
somehow. She wasn’t sure she could do it though and if she tried but failed he would kill her, just like her killed her mum.
She put that thought in her back pocket. If she did encounter him it would help to remember that it wasn’t really Ben, it was a monster that had already killed three people.
She walked back to the front of the church. Everyone was still there but the crush around the door had gone. People were milling around in loose groups, nursing cuts and bruises. There was still no sign of Ben but on the floor at the foot of the stage she could see the lifeless bodies of the unknown uncle, Mrs Mitchell and her mum.
Joanie turned away from them. She couldn’t afford to lose her head now. She stepped down from the stage and walked down the central passage towards the door.
A few people turned to look at her as she passed. A few whispered to each other. She wondered what they thought of her, if they somehow blamed her for what happened. Maybe they thought she was going to try to kill them like Ben had. She ignored them all.
She stopped at the door and looked up. It was big, easily three metres taller than she was. She put a hand against the wood and pushed, it didn’t move. The hinges were solid metal and the screw heads had been worn down to nothing. She knocked on it and the sound faded to nothing so she couldn’t even call passers-by to help.
Joanie examined every centimetre of the door but it was ancient and solid. It might as well have been a brick wall. If they were getting out it wasn’t going to be this way.
Joanie walked on past the door, searching the walls as if they might contain a hidden exit. She didn’t know what she was going to do. She was trapped and she didn’t like it. She had an overwhelming urge to fall to the floor in floods of tears but she couldn’t let herself. Why was this happening? She wondered. And why was she, a nine year old girl, the only one that seemed to be doing anything constructive to try and get them out of it.
At the corner or the church she walked around the gold candlestick holders that were as tall as she was and then continued her search along the next wall. If there was only a way to get up to the stained glass windows they could get out. If only she knew where she could get a ladder or something that she could lean against the wall and climb.
She squeezed past the people that were clustered along the wall. They looked down at her as she passed but they didn’t ask her what she was doing or offer to help. They were completely useless, she realised. They had never had to deal with looking after themselves, never had to defend themselves, they didn’t know what to do. If she didn’t get them out of here then they would just wait around until Ben got them.
She hadn’t seen Ben since she’d come out of the Vicar’s office. Remembering that he was the reason they were locked in the church she looked around for him but he wasn’t there. If Ben had escaped, she wondered, would the vicar unlock the door and let them go, or would he refuse to believe it and let them all starve to death?
Joanie didn’t know the answer but she decided she might as well ask the old man. She wondered why no one else had tried speaking to him as she pushed open the door and stepped into the room. It was dull but the lamp on the vicar’s desk gave off enough light for her to see by.
She clamped a hand over her mouth to muffle a scream.
The vicar was dead. Slumped face down on his desk. Ben was holding onto his back, pulling strips of flesh away from his neck.
Oh Ben, she thought, but of course it wasn’t really Ben. It was something else, some horrible abomination using his body. His poor little body that should have just been allowed to rest.
The door fell closed behind her and she jumped. She turned around and grabbed the first thing that she could find: a metal tea pot. It was heavy but not heavy enough to really do any damage. Joanie wasn’t thinking about that though. Suddenly she was angry, furious, whatever this thing was it had no right to use Ben’s body like this and to kill all those people.
She ran three steps across the room and swung the tea pot. The Ben thing didn’t even turn around at the sound of her footsteps.
When Joanie struck her brother’s head she felt the sickening weakness of flesh as his soft skull caved in. The thing let go of the vicar and fell forward onto the desk.
Joanie stood there panting, holding the tea pot up, ready to use it again if she needed to.
Ben turned slowly to look at her. Red was smeared around his mouth as if he had been eating lipstick. His eyes were sunken and ringed with dark circles. He opened his mouth and hissed.
‘You stole Mister Fixer,’ he said. His voice came from deep within his chest.
Joanie shook her head, ‘no,’ she said dumbly. ‘No Ben, that’s not true.’
Ben grinned showing even more of his immature teeth stubs. Joanie wondered how he managed to bite through skin with those blunt things. He nodded. ‘You stole him and you killed me dead.’
It was as if he knew what she was thinking but hearing her own thoughts aloud made her realise how silly they were. She shook her head with more conviction. ‘It was an accident,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry that you’re dead Ben but no one’s to blame.’
She waited for him to attack but he remained crouched on the desk. Joanie tightened her grip on the teapot.
The thing that was not her brother watched her from across the room. No more than a metre separated them.
She hadn’t killed Ben, she realised that now. It had been a terrible, terrible accident but no one was to blame. This thing, whatever it was, was not her brother but it had already killed her mum and if she didn’t do something soon it would kill everyone in the church, starting with her.
Joanie lifted the heavy tea pot above her head and ran at Ben. Whether she caught him off guard or had disarmed him with her denial of responsibility, she didn’t know. Whatever it was he did not put up much of a fight.
The teapot caved in the front of his head and the familiar face vanished beneath a slimy mixture of blood and fragments of skull. Ben lifted his hands to try and push her away but he was weak now and she was strong. She brought the teapot down again and again until her arm started to hurt and his body was limp.
She stepped back, out of breath and sore. Ben’s body lay in a heap, his face caved in and unrecognisable. She turned away.
There might not be much time, she realised. Ben’s body had come back from the dead once, there was no guarantee it wouldn’t happen again.
She turned towards the vicar. He was dead but that might have been for the best. She hurried over to his body and began searching for the keys. She found them in the bottom drawer of his desk, next to a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches. She slipped the matches into her pocket along with the keys and backed out of the room without taking her eyes off Ben.
In the main church she closed the door and prepared to turn around and give the others the good news. She wondered if they would feel ashamed that they had been rescued by a nine year old girl.
Someone screamed and Joanie turned towards them. She dropped the teapot that she was still holding and the clang echoed around the church.
It couldn’t be.
She took a step forwards, feeling dazed, she shook her head. It just couldn’t be.
Her mum was standing up. The hole in her neck was a red gash. She turned her head jerkily from side to side and Joanie could see the muscles and ligaments working in her neck.
(it wasn’t her mum, just like it hadn’t been Ben)
reached for the nearest person, a woman Joanie recognised from school. The woman stepped back, everyone stepped back, they were wise to the danger they were in.
Joanie turned towards the door but a voice made her stop: ‘Melanie,’ said her dad.
The mum thing turned in the direction of the voice and started walking towards her dad, but she needn’t have bothered; he was walking towards her.
Joanie watched in horror as the mum-thing and her dad moved towards each other. They had their arms stretched out like they were about to hug.
‘Dad no!’ shouted Joanie. She started to run across the church, pushing people out of her way. She was too far away though; they were going to meet at any moment. ‘Dad!’ she shouted again.
‘Joanie, shhh,’ said her dad. ‘Don’t shout in the library, you’ll get us thrown out.’ He didn’t look at her, didn’t turn away from her mum.
The mum-thing opened her mouth, her adult sized teeth visible right up to the gum. Joanie rounded the final pew and then she was sprinting through the clearing that had formed around her mum and dad. She made up almost all of the ground she had lost. But it still wasn’t going to be enough.
The mum-thing and her dad reached each other. He took her hands and leaned in to kiss her. Joanie did the only thing she could think to do: she put one foot on the nearest pew and flung herself into the air.
Her dad closed his eyes and puckered his lips.
Joanie flew through the air. The world around her seemed to stop moving. She could see nothing except her dad and the mum-thing moving closer, closer.
The mum-thing leaned forward, a fat tongue fell out of her mouth and hung there like a dead eel.
Joanie collided with the mum-thing and her dad’s lips brushed across her cheek as they flew to the ground. The mum-thing cried out in frustration or anger or something else. They rolled across the hard stone floor, over and under each other until they hit the side of the stage.
Joanie reached for the edge of the stage and pulled herself to her feet. Her right arm hurt where she had landed and her left leg where she had rolled over the keys. She turned to look for her dad. He stood where she had left him with his mouth open in surprise. She stepped towards him intending to explain and then she felt the sharp stabbing pain in her ankle. When he looked down she saw her mum had bitten through her jeans.
She looked around hoping to find someone who might help but they had all turned the other way. She couldn’t believe that a group of family, friends and neighbours were just going to stand there while a little girl got killed.
‘Dad, please,’ she said. She didn’t think her dad was really capable of helping her but he was the only one even looking in her direction.
‘Oh no,’ he said, shaking his head. His expression hardened into one of anger. ‘I saw what you did to your mother. You’ll get no sympathy from me.’
She couldn’t believe he was just going to let the mum-thing kill her but she supposed that’s not what he saw happening. He was safe in his deluded little world and he wasn’t going to step out of it to help her. ‘Dad she’s killing me.’
‘Oh don’t be so melodramatic,’ he said.
Joanie yanked her leg away from her mother and she felt her skin being torn. She tried again, gritted her teeth through the pain, and managed to hop away.
The mum-thing swung out its arm to try and recapture her but Joanie was too quick.
‘Come on dad,’ she said, grabbing hold of his arm and pulling him away. He mumbled a protest but didn’t actually resist.
She hopped down the central aisle and people got out of her way. She looked up at them, hoping to shame them for abandoning her, but not one of them would meet her eye. Cowards, she thought, at least her dad had the excuse that he’d lost his mind.
Joanie found that she couldn’t put any pressure on her injured leg and leaned against her dad for support. They moved slowly and behind her she could hear the mum-thing dragging itself after her.
‘Tony help,’ she heard it say, its voice muted and frail like Ben’s had been.
Her dad tried to stop, to turn around and go back for her but Joanie kept moving. She forced him to move with her.
They reached the door and she was out of breath. She fumbled in her pocket for the keys and found the packet of matches.
Joanie looked back along the aisle, the mum thing was still coming. Everyone was watching her to see what she would do. She had a mind to leave them all here, let one of them deal with the mum-thing as she had dealt with Ben. But if they killed the mum thing the Mrs Mitchell-thing would be next and if they dealt with her the uncle-thing would rise up. She didn’t understand what was happening but she realised she had to put a stop to it. Under no circumstances could they be allowed to get out.
She unlocked the door and pulled it open. People began surging towards her but she hobbled outside with her dad before they arrived.
Joanie waited until the last of them was out and then she looked back inside. The mum-thing was on the ground, its arms stretched out towards the last person it had tried to grab. She slammed the door closed and locked it.
It was surprisingly easy to start a fire. Joanie knew boys from the year above her at school sometimes went to the woods with boxes of matches. They would light one and put it back in the box. A moment later the rest of the matches would catch with a whoosh. A brief bright flame would explode followed by a cloud of smoke. They called it a genie.
‘Wait here,’ she said to her dad. He nodded and remained by the door.
Joanie leaned against the wall of the church for support and made her way around to the back.
Outside of the church there were grave stones everywhere. They stuck up from the grass like tiny islands. Most of the names were too faded to read.
At the back of the church she found a shed. It was locked but she tried the vicar’s keys and found one that opened it.
She hoped to find a lawn mower and she did. On a shelf beside it there were two red plastic containers that were used to store petrol. She lifted them up and was relieved to find them full.
She stood on the road opposite the church and held her dad’s hand. Everyone else from the funeral was gone.
The heat from the fire warmed her face. She had to look away when the stained glass windows exploded out. In the distance she could hear the siren of a fire engine but it would not arrive in time to save the building nor the people-things inside it.