TWO-DAY GIVEAWAY: something black…

Halloween is almost upon us.  That means horror.  And candy.  Today, we’re sticking with horror.

Earlier this year I released my horror novella something black…, an apocalyptic tale about the end of the world.  Because I’m a giver, I offer you the complete first chapter, below.  And because I’m even more of a giver, you can grab a copy for FREE both today and tomorrow (October 11th and 12th) at Amazon!

Happy (early) Halloween!

****

something black…

There was something wrong with the girl at the train station.

Gabriel Drake had ridden the Sounder commuter train to work for the past three-and-a-half-years.  He’d dealt with rising fares and increasingly erratic bus service to and from the station; he’d dealt with overhauls in the transit rules and countless schedule changes; he’d quietly endured unhappy fellow commuters and frustrated, underpaid conductors.  He’d put up with it all because deep down he was happy with the knowledge that he was saving gas, keeping one more car off the road, and getting some exercise by taking a long morning walk to reach his first bus.  He could never get enough exercise.

Gabe liked to take care of his body, but ever since he’d left the Army he found that his carb-heavy eating habits had been hard to give up.  Working in IT Development for a gaming company didn’t give him a ton of options for eating well: the joke around the rest of Sorcerer’s Apprentice was that if it didn’t involve Doritos and Mountain Dew, IT wouldn’t touch it, and Gabriel could do little to disprove that notion.  For a time, he was actually afraid he’d gained a little bit of weight.

“No,” his sister had explained rather brusquely.  “You haven’t.  Give me a break.”  She’d proceeded to explain how his idea of “fat” and the definition held by the rest of the world didn’t exactly coincide.

The girl at the station was just his type.  She was about five-foot-nine or five-foot-ten, with dark blonde hair colored black at the tips.  She wore thin Don’t-Fuck-With-Me librarian glasses, sandals that showed carefully manicured toes painted with black polish, a bulky gray North Face pullover, a white button-up shirt beneath the sweater with the collars turned up Elvis-style, and a pair of off-green Capris.

It wasn’t the first time Gabriel had seen her.  Off-and-on for the past seven or eight weeks, while he waited for the 7:37 Sounder, she was out there with a 12-ounce Nonfat Sugar Free Vanilla Latte (something he’d taken to drinking himself) and a cigarette.  She was usually on the phone and always looked ravishing, and yet somehow she’d managed to escape the attention of almost every other male at the station.  Just twice Gabriel had seen her talking to a guy her age (he put her in the mid-twenties All-For-Me age bracket, a good six or seven years younger than himself and young enough, in his mind, that his holding an interest in her officially qualified him as a pervert who liked to watch young girls), but her conversations with the other guy abruptly stopped a few days ago, and Gabriel went back to having her all to himself.

I’m thirty-one, he thought, I make more money than I need, and yet I don’t have the balls to go and talk to a girl.  Even the Army can’t take the nerd out of the computer nerd, I guess.

Gabriel didn’t worry about it too much.  He actually didn’t think about sex all that often, and on the rare occasion when he absolutely had to get laid he knew of a group of Asian escorts in Seattle who’d proved more than capable of taking care of his needs.  But Gabriel had a pulse, and this girl had found it, even if she didn’t know it yet.

Am I creepy? He wondered.  Probably.  Thankfully I’m harmless.  I’m just like that Rod Stewart wannabee who sings that stupid “Beautiful” song…and that just sucks for me.

It was a freezing October morning.  Washington had a tendency to shift from decent to foul weather at the drop of a hat, and that unprecedented meteorological attitude adjustment was usually accompanied by a sudden shortness in the length of days.  Gabriel walked just over two miles to catch a bus that took him to the train station, but in spite of working up a sweat along the way the morning cold always won out in the end, and he’d be shivering by the end of the twenty minutes he had to stand and wait for the Sounder after the bus got him to the station.  The fluorescent lamps at Sumner station seemed incapable of pushing back the freezing silver fog that morning.  Gabriel felt like he was in a crime noir scene from the 1940s, and he even had the trench coat to match.

The air was moist, and for some reason Gabriel felt like he was standing in the middle of the woods.  He vaguely noted the scents of mold and decay, something like the dank smell of collapsing wood and upturned roots.  Gabriel had never before noticed such a peculiar odor in Sumner, a quaint little town filled with old-fashioned shops and kitchen stores, the antiquated train station and colorful Halloween decorations.  He figured it was just him – he often smelled things that weren’t there, usually after he’d had some distant memory, but today his mind was focused solely on The Girl.

She wasn’t smoking today, or talking on the phone.  She stood near the shelter for the 408 bus and just stared off into space, seemingly oblivious to what went on around her.  Gabriel wondered if this wasn’t the perfect time to finally get the guts to go and talk to her, but something about her distant demeanor told him she wanted to be left alone.  Her pouty lips were painted black, probably in the spirit of Halloween, and the train station lights reflected eerily off her glasses.  The mist around her shone like grey fire.

Gabriel glanced up at the electronic info sign that hung over the nearest boarding bay and saw that the Sounder bound for King Street Station would arrive in four minutes.  The sign was rarely accurate, but the soulless and echoing electronic voice rang out just a moment later and confirmed.  The station, which had been largely deserted through the past twenty-odd minutes, suddenly came to life, as if the commuters had hidden in the shadows until the voice told them that it was safe to emerge.  In Gabriel’s experience in other cities he’d lived in, train stations were repositories for the dregs of the community, but while the Sumner station certainly experienced its share of transients, the place was surprisingly clean, almost to the point of sterility.  Even stray cigarette butts were hard to find.

His eyes went to the loading platform on the other side of the bus run.  A tall fence stood on the far side of the tracks, and beyond that was a busy road connecting Highway 410 to downtown Sumner.  Gabriel shivered, adjusted his laptop bag and backpack, and glanced back at the girl.

She stared right back at him.

He hastily looked away.  They’d exchanged words once or twice, and he stared at her so often it was impossible not to meet her gaze every now and again, but usually he was able to play it off like he’d been casually looking around at nothing in particular.

But this time…for some reason Gabriel’s heart pounded, and it wasn’t because he was aroused.  The look she gave him was unsettling, a cold and calculating stare that reminded him of a hungry lion.  He glanced back, and he was relieved to see she wasn’t looking at him anymore.  Her gaze shifted to a heavyset man with bifocals and a nice black and white business suit, sans tie.  The man stood beneath one of the train shelters and busily read a folded newspaper in one hand while he nursed a coffee in the other; he didn’t seem to notice her eyes on him.  Gabriel wasn’t sure how the guy could be that oblivious – her look had literally sent a chill up his spine, and he hesitated to look her way again, but he did.

Her eyes slid to someone else, a thin and middle-aged woman in a business dress; then to a pair of teenage girls in colorful hoodies and too-tight jeans that showed off their stick-like frames; then to a twenty-something man with an expertly groomed five-o-clock shadow, a leather jacket and an IPad.  Her eyes never stayed on any of them for more than a few seconds, but that one look was enough, and it was the same as the one she’d given Gabriel: a predatory glare, loathing, deadly, full of malign intent.

Overreact much? he chided himself, but the joke didn’t stick.  He just watched her, and wondered if he shouldn’t go and get a station agent.  What did she do? he argued with himself.  So she’s crabby….call out the National Guard, why don’t you?

On any other day, Gabriel would have written the entire thing off, but something about the way she’d looked at him had left him completely unnerved.  There was something wrong with her.

Gabriel spied the station agent near the handicap boarding ramp.  He was a grizzled man in his mid-sixties named Jack.  Jack had an amiable way about him, and even though Gabriel didn’t think the old coot would be worth much of anything in a real crisis, he was all there was.  Gabriel knew of a cop who lived nearby and who sometimes took the train up to his job in Tukwila, but said cop was usually busy making lecherous advances on the twenty-year-old barista in the coffee shop, and in any case, he didn’t seem to be around.  Gabriel shot a last look at the girl, who’d taken her stares to the people getting off the newly arrived 496 Express Bus, and then quickly jogged over to Jack.

“Hey there, Gabe,” Jack smiled.  He was missing a couple of his front teeth.

“Hey, Jack.  Listen…this might be a little weird, but…do you see that girl over there?”  Gabriel did his best to nod nonchalantly in her direction.  She was nowhere in sight.

“Did you lose her?” Jack laughed.

“Yeah…” Gabriel’s heart hammered.  He wasn’t sure why this was getting him so worked up, but his nerves were on edge, and invisible fingers danced across the back of his neck.  “Um…yeah, you know, it’s probably nothing.  She was just acting sort of strange.”

Loud bells shook the air as the train-crossing signal went off.  People poured out of the coffee shop and ticket shelters and crowded the platform like swarms of mice escaping the tide.  What had been a relatively deserted area just minutes before was suddenly packed with lengthy lines of people waiting to board the train.  Gabriel knew he had to hurry if he wanted to secure his normal spot in the first car, where he liked to plug in his laptop and get his personal e-mails out of the way before he got to work.

Suddenly, Gabriel felt like a bit of a fool.

I must not be getting enough sleep, or something.

“You sure?” Jack asked.

“Yeah, sorry, Jack…I’m sure it’s nothing.”  Jack watched him dubiously for a moment, then shrugged and laughed.

“Whatever you say.  I’m just here to freeze my cajones off.”

Gabriel laughed nervously and walked away.  He hurried down to the second line for the first car – the one nearest the restroom, which he suddenly needed to get to – and saw a load of familiar faces.  Being a relatively quiet man, Gabriel didn’t actually know most of the regular commuters, but since they saw each other day after day, week after week, they of course returned his small smiles and polite nods as he made his way to the end of the rapidly growing line.  He saw the girl in line ahead of him, and she looked perfectly normal as she waited and checked messages on her phone.  Her demeanor was calm, and she didn’t appear nonplussed in the least.  There were two women and one man between her and Gabriel, so he was able to watch her from a fairly discreet distance.

See? he teased himself after he watched her a moment.  The train arrived with a deafening squeal of brakes and a rush of freezing air.  Hell, maybe this is a sign that I really do need to talk to her.  Maybe this is just your brain’s way of telling you to get on with it before you go nuts.

Gabriel watched her as she boarded the train.  She arched her back a bit to look up at the windows of the upper level of the Sounder, likely to see if the brunette she sometimes sat with was there, and as she did her clothes tightly hugged the front of her curvy body.

Yeah, maybe today I’ll talk to her, he thought.  Maybe.

It was an oven inside the train, especially compared to how freezing it was outside.  Gabriel suddenly felt stifled by his sweater and trench coat.  The lower level of the train was a cattle car filled with uncomfortable seats, wheelchair access areas, straps for bikes, plastic wall mounts stuffed with informational pamphlets, the conductor’s control panels and, of course, the ubiquitous restrooms, which Gabriel hurriedly ran into.  He heard the electronic voice declare departure and the doors closed while he did his business, and he felt the train rumble to life while he was washed his hands.

He took a deep breath.  Something was still wrong, and a deep sense of dread had grabbed his gut and wouldn’t let go.  He shook his head, splashed water onto his face, and tried to pull himself together.

Gabriel undid the lock and slid the restroom door open.  He failed to notice how dark it was until after he’d stepped into the car.  His feet landed on a puddle of thick and slippery liquid and slid out from under him, and he fell on his back and cracked his head against the floor.  The air blasted out of his lungs.

For a moment, Gabriel thought he’d broken his skull.  There was blood beneath him, and it took him a moment to realize it wasn’t his.

Slick gore covered the back of his coat, his neck and his hands.  It was all over his shoes and in his messy black hair.  Even with the throbbing echo in his ears he heard the liquid squish and slide as he struggled to stand.  Hot gelatin oozed between his fingers, and his shoes slipped in the muck.

Gabriel smelled bile and urine.  The train rumbled along…he was surprised no one had hit the emergency brake.  Shards of sunlight crept through the windows, but the inside of the train was almost pitch black.

He heard screams and shouts.  Gabriel knew that what he heard was the sound of people dying all around him.

He waited for the old instincts to kick in, the training.  He waited for the raw and cold guts that had kept him alive in Iraq…but nothing happened, and he was just Gabriel, the IT guy, tired and afraid and totally at a loss.  All he could do was sit there on the floor, covered in somebody else’s filth and remains, petrified by the sounds and smells that surrounded him.

His eyes couldn’t make out a thing.  Inky darkness filled the train, a cloud of ash and soot.  Blood flowed on the floor so thick it was like it poured from a shower head.  Gabriel saw forms twist and writhe in the shadows, but he couldn’t focus on them.  His eyes watered from some stinging vapors.

Gabriel didn’t remember standing, but somehow he had, and his back was pressed against the bathroom door.  He held his dripping hands out to stave off whatever might come at him from out of the darkness.

Whispers cut through the air like razors.  The black fog touched him.  It was icy cold and smelled of rotting food.

Even with the violent speed of the train and the incessant screams, Gabriel heard something in the hall to his left, the one that led to the upper seating area.  Whatever it was, it was big enough that its footsteps sounded like cracking bones.  He backed away and slipped again, and this time he fell against the outside doors.  Sharp pain crept up the back of his head, and Gabriel’s right arm was numb and heavy.  Flashing lights in the inky cloud illuminated ghastly silhouettes – limbs and hair, ripping and blood, teeth and debris.

He saw eyes in the dark, cold and white and hauntingly familiar.

Gabriel screamed.  The thing in the hall was almost in sight, a black and lumbering mass.  He cracked open the emergency panel with his left elbow, reached in and yanked the ring, and the outer doors came open.  Cold air blasted in at him.

Outside, everything seemed normal.  The world was covered in rain and mist.  There was sunlight in the distance, and Gabriel saw roads and warehouses along Green River.  The train rocketed along faster than it should have been going.  He nearly fell out into open air as the wind came at him, but he managed to grab the metal beam next to the door and right himself.

His heart pounded, and his muscles shook with fear.  He felt barely in control of his own body.

Gabriel didn’t look behind him.  He didn’t want to see whatever it was that came down the steps, didn’t want to see it in the light of the sane world, but he knew it was right on top of him.  He glimpsed arms and talons, gnashing teeth and pale, pale eyes.

Gabriel threw himself out of the train.

I’m sorry, he thought.  The world turned end over end, and he crashed to the ground.

****

Steven Montano has yet to figure out where he put his mind.  If you happen across it, please stumble on over to his website or follow him on Twitter and let him know.

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