The Worst is Yet to Come

"Claustrophobic and terrifying; you'll be holding your breath."—Rue Morgue

“The Worst is Yet to Come” first appeared in Cathy Buburuz’s third Potter’s Field anthology for Sam’s Dot Publishing and was later picked up as a reprint for Best New Zombie Tales, Vol. 2, from Books of the Dead Press. (For the undead completist there’s always the Best New Zombie Tales Trilogy.)Rue Morgue Magazine reviewed Best New Zombie Tales, Vol. 2 in issue 108, and they voted my story the most terrifying in the book. It remains one of my most satisfying reviews.

To hear me read “The Worst Is Yet To Come,” as well as
BNZT stories by Ray Garton and Jeff Strand, head on over to episode 24 of The Bare Knuckle Podcast.

Lyndon knew he wasn’t supposed to play on Duff Kendrick’s farm, but it was impossible to resist. Rusting scraps of ancient farming equipment littered the yard. Railroad ties lay strewn in an adjacent pasture, sad reminders of corrals that never got built, cattle chutes left in need of mending. Sagebrush and leafy spurge ran riot among it all, right up to the front door of the ramshackle house. Everything about the place was paradise to a boy like Lyndon.
Or would have been, if not for the rumors. Area boys were disappearing in Bradley County, and there weren’t a lot of clues. But kids were good at filling in gaps, and it didn’t take long for the collective finger of Lyndon’s circle of friends to point to Duff Kendrick—Duffer, as he was commonly called—as a prime suspect.
He approached cautiously from the field behind the Kendrick farm. The sun melted like topping on the horizon, which was the best time to strike. Well, maybe not strike… forage. Lyndon wasn’t a junk expert, but he knew what he liked, and Duffer Kendrick’s dilapidated farm was a gold mine. These expeditions also gave Lyndon an opportunity to do a little spying.
As he followed his usual course through high weeds and fossils of the Industrial Age, Lyndon’s eyes fell on something that hadn’t been there during his last scavenging run. Some kind of black metal cabinet, just to the right of the path he usually followed through the shabby yard. It was a safe, he realized as he drew near. Its door hung wide open, like an inviting amusement—or a hungry mouth, he tried to warn himself. He rested one hand on top, the other on the door. It was big enough for him to get into, and he was already wondering how he might get it home and convert it into a bunker or hiding place.
His father had cautioned him against playing in things that could trap him, like ancient refrigerators. When the old man had been drinking, such cautionary tales were often punctuated with a backhand across the face or a kick to the shin. But this was different. The door of the large black safe was heavy, and the way the whole thing was canted backwards in a shallow cleft of soil, he didn’t see how the door could possibly close on him. Besides, it probably wouldn’t lock even if it did shut. All he wanted was to peek at the world from inside the thing, try it on for size.
As he stepped inside, it became clear there was more to his curiosity than wanting an unusual perspective on Duffer’s farm. Still facing the back wall of the safe, Lyndon felt the low tingle of a delicious fear. Not only was he doing something Father would have objected to in the harshest terms—would have belt-whipped him for—but it was something not every boy would have had the nerve to do. Finally he turned around and felt as though he’d conquered something. Duffer’s yard framed by the doorway of the safe seemed small, and Lyndon wondered if the whole world would seem a little smaller from now on.
But before he could step out of the safe to find out, it began to tip backwards. He struggled to reach the opening but was thrown off balance by the movement of the falling safe. It collided hard with the earth, and all motion ceased, except for the door, which seemed to swing inward in slow motion. He reached up, hoping to block the door, keep it from latching shut… But he wasn’t quick enough. And suddenly he was in the most complete, suffocating darkness he had ever known.
His own breathing deafened him to other sounds, if there were any. Instinct urged him to try the door, but fear—no longer delicious—kept him motionless, except for the rapid, heavy breaths he drew, wondering how many he could inhale in such a small space before they failed to deliver oxygen to his blood, and to his brain. His breathing quickened at the thought.
He considered calling for help, but that would have been a stupid waste of energy and air, especially without trying the door first. Slowly his right hand moved in the darkness, seeking the cool steel of the door above him. He pressed his hand flat against the surface, then brought his other hand up. With both hands in position he began to push. For a tiny piece of an instant he thought it might relent, but it was only an illusion caused by the slight give of his wrists and the fleshiest parts of his palms. The latch was secured. Escape was hopeless.
Mrs. Filch, his sixth-grade teacher, had told the class once that it was important never to panic in an emergency, that it only made matters worse. But caught up in the worst emergency of his life, Lyndon was surprised to feel more terrified of trying to remain calm than he was of throwing a useless fit. He’d rather make noise and tire himself than cross his arms on his chest like a vampire and let the horrible reality of his situation slowly choke the life out of him.
And that was all the invitation panic needed. He clawed the door, seeking a sliver of space to slip a finger into, praying for his eyes to adjust to the gloom and discover a razor-thin shaft of light at a loose hinge. But of course there was nothing, and his clawing had no effect. He took to screaming, but that was bad—unbearably loud in the small space. Made him feel a thousand miles deep inside the earth, so he stopped. But the fitful clawing and scraping and scratching continued for some time.
He might have blinked out for a while then. It was hard to separate the blackened stillness of his steel womb from what might have been a brief period of unconsciousness. Or even an extended blackout. Why should he have thought he’d only nodded off for a short time? Maybe a day had passed without his knowledge. The thought wanted to grow into another fit, but this time he was able to resist. There was no way he was going down that road again.
Suddenly there was movement. The safe was being hauled up. Had to be two people on the job, at least. Yet there was no chatter, no crunching of boots on the stony path. Even before he started up his screaming again, he realized the safe was soundproof.
It was difficult to judge what direction he was heading in, felt like the safe was floating and bobbing in the air by magic. Maybe Duffer was taking it to the house. It wasn’t much use out in the yard, after all. Or maybe he’d sold it to Tuck Wagner down the road and they were walking the safe to Tuck’s pickup. Or…
The pond.
Of course. Duffer had caught himself another boy, so why not dump the safe into the pond? Good riddance to bad rubbish. Oh, God! How could this be happening? As if his situation wasn’t bad enough, now he saw that it could easily get a whole lot worse. Even if the pond water wasn’t able to find a way in—which might have been a kind of blessing—knowing he was not only trapped in the safe but also had a body of water pressing in on him from above… He tried desperately to take his thoughts in another direction, but it was like wading through the sludge of a nightmare.
The sensation of falling, followed by a sudden slowing, then a wobbly descent that ended when the safe hit something hard and immovable. A rock at the bottom of the pond? It felt like when Lyndon’s dad had backed the minivan into a light post in the grocery store parking lot: unexpected and halting. Luckily the safe remained on its back. Lyndon might have lost his mind completely if he’d been spun around and knocked about on the way down.
A sudden curiosity about self-destruction startled him. But what else was there? He couldn’t just wait for unconsciousness, could he? How long would it take? But then again, how would he kill himself? A hopeless panic tapped him on the shoulder once more. This time it was put off by a new sensation, something wet near his hairline. He ran a finger over the spot, then brought his finger to his nose. No scent. He licked it. Water. A mad giggle escaped his lips, but when a second drop struck his forehead, quickly followed by a third, he remembered it was nothing to get enthused about.
His hands shot up to the door of the safe, and he pushed with every gram of his diminishing strength. Did it give just a little? He let it go, then redoubled his efforts. Now it did rise some, in the top right corner. Not a lot, but enough to put a bandage on his despair. Again he let the heavy door settle back down, and again he thrust his hands into it with gritted teeth and an animal groan. A slight metallic pop sounded this time, and the dripping water grew to a trickle. He repeated the simple operation until, at last, one hinge came free.
It was a crappy development, in a way. He now stood a chance of pushing the door outward and cranking it on its other hinge enough to allow his escape. But if he wasn’t quick about it, the waters of Duffer’s pond would rush into the small cavity of the safe—and, soon after, his lungs. A good splash had already got him across the cheek when he knocked the one hinge loose. He didn’t need a second reminder.
Brute force seemed like the only solution. He’d read recently, in one of his paperbacks from the school’s mail-order book program, about a little girl who’d been able to lift a motorcycle off her dad because adrenaline gave her muscles a boost when she saw him pinned, limp and bloody, under the thing, not half a block from their home. According to the same story, most accidents happened within five miles of a victim’s front door. That part fit Lyndon’s situation. Duffer Kendrick’s farm wasn’t three miles from his place. And if that part of the story applied to him, why couldn’t the part about having superhuman strength for a few seconds?
No use thinking about it. The adrenaline pumping through him might not last forever. It was now or never.
For an instant, he wished the safe had landed upright. It would have been easier to put some momentum into the job that way. But there also would have been the risk of knocking the safe onto its front, sealing him in an underwater tomb. He’d have to work with what he had. With an upward lunging motion he slammed both hands into the door above him and kept pushing until water streamed, then poured, in. Still, he kept exerting himself against the cold, wet steel. His fingers found the gap and wrapped themselves around the door’s edge. He grunted with the effort of pushing even harder. There was light now, drifting down from the pond’s idle surface. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to give Lyndon the encouragement he needed to see his task through. With one mighty outpouring of force, and a deep breath of stale air, he twisted himself onto his knees and forced the door out of his way, turning it on its remaining hinge. It rotated like the cover plate of an old-fashioned peephole.
Once the gap widened enough, he dragged himself through. Freedom, at last! But he came to a sudden halt, still feet from the surface. Something had him. Looking down, he saw that one of his shoelaces had merely snagged on the ruined hinge of the safe. Still, he wondered if his efforts had been for nothing. But a fierce yank tore the lace free, and Lyndon floated to the surface, aided by the quickest paddling his shod feet and clothed body would allow.
Breaking through the algae skim atop the pond was like being born into a second phase of life, one he hadn’t been convinced he’d live to enjoy a minute or two ago. From this point in time—paddling in the middle of Duffer’s pond and gasping for air—he would take nothing for granted, let no opportunity go unexplored. It may have been the first vow he’d ever made to himself.
His focus was on staying afloat and getting to shore, but he soon noticed two men sitting on a log up along the gulch that wound through these parts. Their backs were to him, and they sat too far off to hear his splashing and wheezing.
Ten feet from the bank, the toes of his shoes swept up silt from the pond floor, and then he was standing. There must have been a sharp drop-off behind him, which would explain how he and the safe had sunk so far before reaching the pond’s bottom, and how the two men on the log could have carried the load far enough out to make sure it went good and deep.
The one on the left was Kendrick. The other one looked like Tuck Wagner, and Lyndon now saw a turd-brown pickup parked near the house. Definitely Tuck’s. He approached with tiger stealth. Once in earshot he was able to duck behind a fat cottonwood and listen as Duffer talked Tuck’s ear off.
“Well, this cocksucker said he was out, didn’t have anymore. I said, ‘I drove a hundred and fifty miles to this gun show, it’s day one, nine-thirty a.m., and you want me to believe you’re sold out of the safe I came here to buy? There’s a name for that,’ I told him. ‘It’s called false advertising. The ad said the Windsor 580 would be available for two hundred and fifty bucks. Now, I want me one of them gun safes.’
“Boy, he looked at me like he wished someone would come along and lop his fool head off. Anything to get out of this one. Finally, he offered to sell me the floor model. ‘Ain’t got no shelves,’ I says. ‘Be happy to mail you some,’ he fires back.
“Hell, I was tired of arguing with the guy, so I took it.”
“And why’d we just dump the damn thing in the middle of your pond?” Tuck said, cocking a thumb over his shoulder.
“Turned out some pieces were missing, along with the shelves. Wasn’t good for anything besides snaring a child. So that’s what I used it for. You only heard it fall over from inside the house, but I saw it. And I saw what made it fall.”
Tuck gave Duffer a blank look. “You’re shittin’ me.”
Lyndon couldn’t see Duffer’s face, but there was a long pause, followed by hoarse laughter as Duffer Kendrick slapped his knee and said, “Boy, you’re dumber than you look, and I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. Course there wasn’t no kid in that gun safe. What do you think I am, the nut who’s been snatching up kids? The guy never sent the shelves, or the key. I have no way of opening the damn thing.”
But Lyndon didn’t buy it. He had a feeling the first thing out of Duffer’s mouth had been the truth, and he suspected there were other children lying at the bottom of the pond, less fortunate than he was… feeding the fishes. His stomach churned at the thought that the water currently chilling him to the core might have microscopic bits of human flesh in it.
A jagged shard of scoria caught his eye. He stooped down to snatch it up and stepped out of hiding. Finally Tuck took notice of Lyndon’s presence, but it was too late to do him—or Duffer—any good. Lyndon ran for Duffer and delivered a heavy blow to the back of the man’s head with the ruddy rock. It knocked him clean off the log, but Lyndon didn’t stop there. He straddled Duffer’s chest and drove the scoria chunk into the man’s forehead, cheeks and eyes.
Duffer tried to resist at first, but he’d been taken by surprise, and before long he was too weak to fight back. And finally, he was dead. Only then did Lyndon rise up from his grisly work to see what Tuck thought of it all.
The man stood several feet behind Lyndon, his face a stretched piece of leather.
“Not much of a friend, huh?” Lyndon asked, short of breath.
“Why’s that, son?”
“Well, you didn’t exactly come to the creep’s aid.”
“No. No, I suppose I didn’t. And I’ll have to live with that. Just like you’ll have to live with what you done. Better hand over the rock, son.”
Lyndon tossed him the scoria.
“Can I give you a lift somewhere, boy? That’s my pickup right over there.”
“Guess not,” Lyndon said, and he turned to walk away.
But he only made it three or four paces before he felt the sudden impact of something striking the base of his skull. He fell onto his back and saw Tuck pitch the rock toward the pond before scooping Lyndon up in his arms and walking him to the passenger side of his pickup.
“Like I said, boy, you’ll have to live with what you done. But not for long. We’re going to take us a little ride over to my place, you and me. Why, I have a cellar that just goes on and on. You’ll love it. Might even have a few of your old chums buried down there.”
The sound of the passenger door closing against Lyndon’s shoulder, and Tuck’s footsteps as he stomped around to the other side of the vehicle, were almost as bad as the door of the safe sealing him in. Maybe every bit as bad and he was just too damn tired and hurt for it to register completely.
Tuck Wagner slid behind the steering wheel and turned over the engine. “You and I’ll get on just fine if you keep your mouth shut while I drive. I’m none too happy about having to come back here later to clean up your little mess. But first things first.” He knuckled Lyndon hard in the temple.
A wave of nausea rippled through the boy’s guts, but he fell asleep before he could tell if he puked or not.
When he woke up, the pickup was climbing over the top of the last hill before Tuck’s turnoff. He touched his shirt, which was bumpy with dried vomit. The sun was low, almost gone, and it cast an eerie glow on the scene below. Tuck slammed the brake pedal to the floor and brought the pickup to a jerky, angled stop on the shoulder. He stepped out to survey the crowd gathered at the base of the hill, blocking the highway with its lumbering presence.
“Wagner!” one of them hollered in a hoarse, garbled voice. And then they began to point.
He took a few steps in their direction, about to speak, but then he must have realized what he was seeing. The mass of pointing, shambling figures was made up of his victims. Somehow they’d come back from the grave to claim revenge. Lyndon recognized some of them as boys who’d gone missing in recent months. But Tuck Wagner must have been at his work for longer than anyone realized, because there were at least two dozen figures down there.
Tuck stood dead still for a while, like he was considering killing them all again, tearing them limb from limb with his bare hands. But terror and revulsion appeared to win out, for those still wearing skin wore only mangled strips of the stuff, and their deathly stink came ahead of them. Tuck jumped back into the pickup, but by now Lyndon had gotten out. And as Lyndon watched Tuck peel away, back in the direction of Kendrick’s farm, he felt safe at last. The dead boys were no longer pointing, but beckoning with slowly curling fingers. He couldn’t imagine what they wanted with him, but it wasn’t bound to be any worse than what Tuck had had in mind. In fact, he felt sure it was something altogether different. Something new.
And so he walked down the hill to meet them, and together they followed the setting sun into night—bloodthirsty without exception.


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