Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Publication date: 6.2.2015
Ten naked people walk from a cemetery into artist Sean Casey's backyard: ten Spore People who used to be dead. One, Mindy, stays with Sean while trying to reclaim her life, but her ex would rather she return to her grave. Sean struggles to protect Mindy and other Spores while battling his recurring - and worsening - nightmares. Meanwhile, the media feels a panicked frenzy that leads both the hopeful and hateful to Sean's front door.
As the Spore fungus spreads, so does the fear. When mutilated children match Sean's nightmares, he realizes his own worst terror may be closer than he thinks.
Chapter 1Head pounding from another fitful night of summer storm and nightmare laced insomnia, Sean Casey plucked an email printout from the mirror and skimmed it as he brushed his teeth.
Black Pawn's art director had emailed rough content and graphic specs for Ghoulie's January issue. Murphy's script - saving inner city kids from kidnappers - was early for once, and editorial changes should arrive that afternoon. Cool.
His girlfriend's handwritten note said the script was on his drawing table. Also cool. And that it was decent, if cliche in places, with good detail option for the illustrations. Triple cool. Despite having woken from a typical pursuer-muching-on-his-entails nightmare, Sean had apparently stumbled into a good morning.
"Mare?" he called out as he left the bathroom with the paper. "You still home?"
Of course she's not home on a Sunday morning, he reminded himself. Their wheezy AC had been running non-stop since late May. She always jumped at the chance to work a little Sunday overtime at the nursing home, and maybe get the power bill caught up.
Sean padded to the kitchen and flicked on the radio by the microwave to drown out the neighbor's barking dog. No music, just the end of a soggy farm report, then a quick update on the ongoing flooding of the Des Moines River basin and incredible fishing near Juniper Creek. Paper set aside, Sean dry-swallowed a couple of Excedrin as news gave way to Alice in Chains. He stood at the sink, humming and filling the pot for morning coffee as he planned his day: prelim sketches by noon, a couple of rounds of layout changes with Murph and editorial, and maybe get started on pencil work for the finals tonight. Be ahead of the game for a chance instead of scrambling to make a deadline.
Movement outside caught his eye. He looked up and muttered, "What the hell?"
Someone stood at the edge of the Christmas tree farm behind his half-acre lot - a man, partially obscured by branches, his shape a thick, dark slash beside a drenched and drooping fir.
Sean leaned forward, squinting into morning sunlight filtering through bland, efficient rows of conifers. He barely noticed cold water run over his hand. "Is he naked?" he whispered.
Yep, the bastard's naked. Sean flinched as branches shifted, leaving little obscuring coverage. Had to be his imagination, a relic from the nightmare - in all the years living in the neighborhood beside Hobson's farm, he'd seen no one but the farm's mowing crew there during the summer. This year had brought more rain than mowing, so much rain that some of the trees had drowned. Sean closed his eyes and counted to ten before opening them again.
Nope. Still there.
We have kids around here, he thought as he flicked off the water and rushed to the laundry room. Families. What kind of sick freak runs around a Christmas tree farm naked on Sunday morning?
He found Mare's aluminum softball bat in its corner by the dryer. Hefty assurance in hand, Sean strode to the back door and flung it open. Beads of sweat erupted on his skin; at not quite seven in the morning, it was already sweltering outside and reeking of hot, wet evergreen.
Sean silenced the fear inside his head and stomped across the yard, pausing at the edge of a rippling puddle that has grown to infect every yard on his side of the neighborhood. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he managed to bark at the man in the tree line. The guy was taller than he looked from the kitchen. As he slowly turned his gaze to Sean, Sean tightened his grip on the bat, steadying its tremble.
Before the man could respond, a plumpish young woman stumbled out a couple of trees away. She, too, wore not a stitch of clothes, and she let out a low, terrified moan as she blinked at Sean. She fought through shin-deep water and rubbed her ears, turning aside and shaking her head as if to cower from a loud noise only she could hear.
Sean's gaze darted to the man. "What the hell have you done to her?" he snapped as he splashed out to the woman.
"Hey, you all right?" he asked, nearly touching her shoulder before pulling his hand away. Vaguely familiar, she was in her mid-twenties and smelled like stale sheets. Her skin looked slick, almost oily, and pinkish slime dripped from her dark, curling hair. When the naked guy stepped out of the trees, Sean raised the bat as a warning and kept himself between the man and the woman. "C'mob," Sean told her, "let's get you to the house--"
The woman's startled lurch splashed water halfway up his thighs. "What's going on?" she asked, looking around, apparently oblivious to her nudity. "Where am I? Who are you?"
"I'm Sean Casey. You're in my backyard, in Pinell," Sean said, turning to keep his attention on the man who strode out of the puddle and toward the garden shed as if he were royalty. "And I have no idea what's going on." He glanced at the woman's face. "Are you hurt? Were you drugged?"
"What?" She shook her head, still wobbly on her feet. "Me? Drugged?" She tilted her head, concerned, then she blinked and her eyes grew wide. "Oh my God!" she squeaked, scrambling away from him. "Why am I naked?"
"I have no idea," Sean said, avoiding looking at her. "You just walked into my yard like that."
"I what?" she asked, voice rising. "Why would I... He's nak... Holy crap, what's going on? Have I lost my mind?"
Maybe it's me, Sean thought as the woman babbled. But I haven't had lucid hallucinations for years. He shook his head, looking between the two naked strangers. Unlike the usual companions in his nightmares, they weren't bleeding, gutted, or being eaten. And it was a sticky morning in broad daylight, not a cold, dank night. Sean clenched his left hand, nails biting into his palm.
Daylight or not, maybe it's just another nightmare.
He opened his fist to see welts, one threatening to bleed. I'm still here. In my backyard. With two naked strangers. No, three. Did a nudist cult have a party in the tree farm?
Another drenched nude woman stumbled out of the trees. Skinny and going gray, she gazed mindlessly at the sky and walked through Sean's drowned peonies.
Sean took a breath and asked the first woman, "Do you remember what happened? Was there an accident? You and your friends okay?"
"I don't know who they are," she said, covering herself with her hands. She blushed as far down as Sean dared to look. "Do you have a towel? A blanket? Something?"
He didn't want to let crazies into the house, but he couldn't let naked women stand around his flooded backyard, either.
"Um, sure," he said. "There's a quilt over the couch in the living room, straight through, and sheets and towels are in the linen closet, down the hall by the bathroom door. Help yourself."
Sean winced as the other woman tripped and fell against the old brick barbecue before landing on her ass in the puddle. Letting the first woman manage on her own, he rushed to help the second to her feet. "It's okay, ma'am," he said, turning slightly to point to his back door. "Go on in and have the other lady help you get covered up, okay?"
He guessed her to be about forty. She looked up at him, her eyes wide and afraid. "Who are you?" she asked, gripping his arm as if he was the first solid thing she'd seen. She had a faint dirty-sock aroma around her, and her palm felt slimy and cold against his forearm. "Where am I? Why is it so wet and hot?"
Taking a quick glance at the still-silent man staring into the shed as if he'd never seen a lawn tractor before, Sean started to lead her toward the house. "Sean Casey, ma'am. You're in my backyard. At my house, in Pineal. On Hobson Road. It's been raining a lot and it's the middle of July. It's supposed to be hot and wet."
The woman's fingers clenched tighter. "Hobson? In Pinell? There ain't no houses Hobson, other than Hobson Holiday Farm, and the Caseys live in Boone, on Third."
Confused, Sean stopped and stared at the woman. "I grew up in the house on Third. My mother still lives there. Helene? Do you know Helene Casey?"
The woman nodded eagerly. "Of course I do! She and Pat bought that little house just last summer, right after the baby came."
Okaaay, he thought. She seems to believe it's thirty years ago. "Ma'am, I think you're confused," he said, coaxing her toward the back door. "Maybe too much sun. You need to go sit--"
A child screamed next door, and Sean turned, wrenching his arm out of the confused woman's grip. "Steffie! You okay?"
Steffie Mathers, six years old and already wearing her swimsuit, stood on her deck screaming bloody murder and pointing at a nude old man stepping out from between two trees.
Another one? What the hell's happening out here?
Steffie's mother ran onto the deck. She grabbed Steffie and dragged her toward the patio doors. Then she saw Sean.
"Sean! What's happening?" Nicole called out, holding Steffie's face against her belly.
He had been keeping an eye out for Nic and the kids while her husband, Aaron, was on his second tour in the Middle East.
"I have no idea," Sean said, walking to her deck. A middle-aged man staggered out of the trees as the other grasped onto the swing set. Sean shook his head and turned away from the men. "I have three at my place, too."
Nic blinked at him. "Three? I only see one. Please tell me you didn't let any in your house?!"
"Well, I..." he said, voice sounding timid in his own ears. "They seem really confused." He shrugged over at the silent man in his own yard. "The other two are women. I can't--"
Nicole pushed her daughter into the house. "Hell yes, you can. Women will steal you blind just as quickly as a man. And God knows what they've been doing out there," she said, gesturing toward the tidy rows of fir and spruce poking out of the water. She grimaced and shook her head. "Always knew you were crazy, but damn, Sean, can't you--"
Sean looked toward his own yard. A naked child splashed toward the rhubarb marking the property line with his other neighbor.
He interrupted Nicole. "Call the sheriff. Find something to cover them up. In or out. I'll try to corral them at my place."
"I'll bring some towels," she sighed.
Sean ran, sprinting across his own yard to the Simmons'. When they weren't turning Earl's consulting job into a vacation, their anti-social mutt, Peaches, had full run of the place, contained only by invisible fencing that kept her inches inside the property line. The Simmons found it funny when she chased off Girl Scouts, old men collecting for the veterans, or Jehovah's Witnesses. A confused grade-schooler wouldn't stand a chance.
"Ho there!" Sean hollered, waving for the little boy to stop.
Her hackles raised, Peaches silently ran back and forth along her demarcation line while the kid splashed toward her as if she were a regular, friendly dog.
Why, oh why, couldn't the Simmons be on vacation again? Sean hustled across the yard. "Stay away from that dog! She bites!"
The kid blinked, stopping not two steps from Peaches, then whined and rubbed his ears as if they suddenly hurt.
Sean tucked the bat under his arm and snatched up the little boy, almost coughing at the low reek of his skin. "You all right?"
Peaches stopped pacing and growled, baring her teeth. The boy nodded, shuddering, while one hound ground at his ear.
In the middle of his own yard, Sean set the boy on his feet and pointed him toward the back door. "Ask one of the women inside to get you covered up. Okay?"
The man at the shed finally spoke. "Where's my motorcycle?"
Sean took a breath and turned, managing to hold his voice to a polite timbre. "Excuse me?"
The man turned and said, "Where the hell's my Kawasaki? And what do you all think you're doing in my yard?"
Sean thought for a moment he recognized the man's face, but then he wasn't sure. He was about Sean's age and build, and had a sprawling, lumpy mole on his right forearm. Nothing remarkable, but somehow the guy's presence was distressing. "Look, dude," Sean said, shifting the bat to his hand again, "this isn't your house, it's mine. Lived here eight years."
"Eight years my ass. I built the fire pit, laid the patio brick, and expanded the back bedroom. This is my house!"
Sean started to say that the bank surely would disagree, but he clamped his mouth shut as Nicole walked toward them. Grimacing, she escorted the elderly man, who was struggling to hold up the towel sagging around his waist. The middle-aged man wore a snug towel and walked behind them, eyes wide and darting about as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing.
They were just guys. Harmless naked, confused guys. Arm-mole-guy on the other hand... Just looking at him made Sean feel edgy.
"Sheriff's on the way," Nicole said. Steffie trailed behind the adults, leading her toddler brother and angling her free hand over her eyes to block the view past her feet.
The guy with the mole glared at Sean and Nicole, then stomped into the house and slammed the screen door behind him.
About the author:
Tamara started her academic career as a science geek, earned a degree in art, and, when she's not making quilts or herding cats, writes tense thrillers as Tamara Jones and the award-winning Dubric Byerly Mysteries series (Bantam Spectra) as Tamara Siler Jones. Despite the violent nature of her work, Tam's easygoing and friendly. Not sick or twisted at all. Honest.