I also wrote a short story for the Anything but Zombies anthology. Read an excerpt of “The Takers” right here ahead of its publication this Tuesday.
The line buzzed three times before Phyllis answered.
“Hello?” his wife said.
“Honey, it’s me,” Toby said. “I lost my cell phone and I’m at the neighbor’s—Mr. Laferle—using his phone.”
“What happened?” The panic in his wife’s voice was thick. “Why didn’t you call me back? The girls and I were so worried about you!”
He didn’t say that he’d just told her he’d lost his cell phone. She was understandably worried. “I tore the house up looking for my cell. I looked inside and out before calling it quits twenty minutes ago and coming down here to call. I’m sorry I worried you.”
“You had me worried. Are you okay?” Phyllis took a deep breath and blew it out into the phone. “Should I come up there?”
“No!” he said a little too loudly. “I’m fine now that I finally got to talk to you. Everything’s fine.”
“What did the sheriff say?”
“Not too much in the help department.” There was a little anteroom off the back of the kitchen and Toby was half-mindedly examining the junk inside through a window when he spotted what looked to be a wavy strip of white aluminum siding sitting atop a pile of junk. “Uh, honey, I gotta go, there’s a call coming on the other line. Love you. ’Bye.”
He hung up the phone and put his back to the fridge. Mr. Laferle was still standing there. Maybe that particular siding hadn’t come off his house but Toby noticed the man’s half-bandaged hands. One was pretty well wrapped even though blood had soaked through until it looked like he was wearing a red mitten. The other hand had a deep gash through the palm and Toby would have guessed he’d severed some tendons. The bandage on that hand was haphazard, wrapped securely at the wrist and looser as it went up the hand like he’d lost interest in what he’d been doing. The man didn’t seem to notice his still oozing wounds as he stood silent as a mummy, his wide eyes on Toby.
“Mr. Laferle, you okay?” His layer of panic stripped away, Toby was able to process his surroundings more effectively. The man was in shock. There was still an air about him, however, making Toby nervous. More than his own issues, though, he was worried about the man. Was it possible for someone to bleed to death from the cuts on his hands? At the very least, he could have permanent damage if his wounds weren’t tended promptly, Toby guessed.
He spotted a stack of books on the kitchen table. He recognized the cover of the one on top and realized it was one of his. Mr. Laferle was a fan! Maybe the man was in shock and a little bit in awe of an author he’d been reading now standing in his kitchen.
He smiled and pointed at the books. “Hey, why don’t we get you to the hospital and I’ll sign some of those for you.” His neighbor lunged at him, wrapping oozing hands around his neck. Toby batted at his arms, breaking his weak grip and stepping aside. Mr. Laferle crashed into the refrigerator and Toby circled around him. The shorter man turned, his eyes locking onto Toby. He had that same expression, but the sudden violence changed the tenor of his eyes. He almost looked mindless.
They stood in front of each other, the air between them like ice. Toby wanted to run, but he didn’t think he could get the door open and out before the man was on him.
“Now wait a minute,” Toby said. “I don’t know what’s going on, but we can just forget I was even here.” He held out a placating hand. “Just let me walk out the door and we’re good. Okay?”
By way of reply, his neighbor’s mouth fell open. Toby thought he saw a blue light from behind his teeth and a millisecond before the man charged again, Toby snatched up the boiling pot and swung it in an arch at his head. It connected with a ping, but redirected him rather than stopping him. Mr. Laferle whirled, his bloody hands up like a 10 percent–wrapped mummy and Toby hit him again. The man didn’t go down, didn’t seem to understand his face had just been smashed open, didn’t appear to hear the pot clanging off his skull, his eyes never wavering from his target. Toby didn’t stop swinging, each time the pot pinging off Mr. Laferle’s head until his forward momentum stopped and he was driven back. There was a dent at the corner of the man’s hairline before he fell and Toby stood over him, panting heavily.
His neighbor’s eyes were still pointed at him, but they were glazed. Toby sidestepped to make sure they didn’t follow like a creepy wall painting. Mr. Laferle was dead.
Toby dropped the equally misshapen pot, his hands going to his mouth as if to stop it from speaking some secret against his will.
He had to call the police.
He had to get out of here.
The whole episode had taken on an eeriness he couldn’t stand to be around.
Toby backed away. He retreated to the phone, grabbing it off the wall mount and thumbed 911. The county operator he was routed to took his information and asked him to stay on the line while she contacted the local police. Toby let the phone slide from his hands, already headed for the door. He knew what this looked like and it would still look the same from the relative comfort of his own home. Let them say he’d murdered a man. But staying there was not an option.
He tore open the front door, making a beeline for his house. “The writer didn’t dare look into moonless night or listen to thick silence,” Toby said as he ran. “His eyes and ears were only for the house in front of him.” Toby’s lungs were starved for oxygen by the time he got the door shut behind him. He went through the house and turned on all the lights as if to wash the dark off him and sweep it back outside like a receding tide.