The Skull-Faced Boy

by David Barr Kirtley

This story originally appeared in the March 2002 issue of Gothic.net, and was reprinted in the anthologies The Living Dead, edited by John Joseph Adams, and Z: Zombie Stories, edited by J. M. Lassen. It also appeared as Episode 94 of the Pseudopod podcast. The illustration is by Jandan. Learn more about the story here.
 

 

     It was past midnight, and Jack and Dustin were driving along a twisted path through the woods. Jack was at the wheel. He was arguing with Dustin over Ashley.
     Jack had always thought she had a pretty face--thin, arching eyebrows, a slightly upturned nose, a delicate chin. She'd dated Dustin in college for six months, until he got possessive and she got restless. Now, Jack thought, maybe she was interested in him.
     But Dustin insisted, "She'll give me another chance. Someday."
     "Not according to her," Jack said, with a pointed look.
     He turned his eyes back to the road, and in the light of the high beams he saw a man stumble into the path of the car. Without thinking, Jack swerved.
     The car bounced violently, and then its left front side smashed into a tree. The steering column surged forward, like an ocean wave, and crushed Jack's stomach. Dustin wasn't wearing a seatbelt. He flew face-first through the windshield, rolled across the hood, and tumbled off onto the ground.

     Jack awoke, disoriented.
     A man was pounding on the side of the car, just beyond the driver's side window, which was cracked and foggy and opaque. Jack pushed at the door, which creaked open just enough for him to make out the man's face. The man stared at Jack, then turned and started to walk off.
     Jack shouted, "Call for help."
     But the man didn't respond. He wandered toward the woods.
     "Hey!" Jack screamed. He brushed aside a blanket of shattered glass and released his seatbelt. He pushed his seat backward, slowly extricating his bleeding stomach from the steering column, then dragged himself out the door and onto the ground, and he crawled after the man, who continued to walk away.
     Finally Jack found the strength to stand. He lurched to his feet, grabbed the man by the shirtfront, shoved him back against a tree, and demanded, "What's wrong with you? Get help."
     Jack glanced about desperately and added, "I have to find my friend."
     The man gave a long and wordless moan. Jack stared at him. The man was very pale, with disheveled hair. His face was encrusted with dirt, and his teeth were twisted and rotten. His eyes were... oozing.
     Suddenly Dustin's voice burst out, "He's dead."
     Jack turned. Dustin stood there, his nose and cheeks torn away. Two giant white eyeballs filled the sockets of his freakishly visible skull. Scraps of flesh hung from his jaw. Jack screamed.
     Dustin stumbled over to the wrecked car, to where one of its side-view mirrors hung loosely. He tore off the mirror and stared into it. For a long time, he neither moved nor spoke.
     Finally he called out, "That man has come back from the dead. Look at him, Jack. He's dead, and so am I."
     Jack shuddered and backed away from the man.
     Dustin's eyeballs fixed on Jack's stomach.
     Apprehensive, Jack looked down. He lifted his blood-drenched shirt to expose the mangled mess beneath.
     "And so are you," Dustin said.

     Jack and Dustin set out on foot. They climbed to the top of a high bluff and watched the bodies of dead men stumble through the grassy fields below. Dustin sat with his back turned, so that his ruined face was lost in shadows. He said, "It's everyone. Everyone who died is coming back."
     The dead man who had caused the accident was following them. He stumbled from the trees and regarded Jack vacantly.
     Jack approached the man and said, "Can you talk?"
     The man paused a moment, as if trying to focus, then gave another inarticulate groan. He wandered away.
     Jack said to Dustin, "Why is he like that, and we aren't?"
     Dustin said, "He dug himself out of the ground. He's been dead a long time--rotted flesh, rotted brains."
     "Are there others like us?" Jack said.
     "I don't know." Dustin leapt to his feet and called out to the valley below, "Hey! Can you hear me? Can you understand what I'm saying?"
     The warm and fetid air carried back only wails. Dustin shrugged.
     He and Jack followed the road until they came to a small house with its lights on.
     Jack suggested, "We can call for help."
     "What help?" Dustin said. "We're past that."
     But he followed Jack toward the house, whose front door was open wide. They paused on the porch. They could see into the kitchen, where a woman stood clenching a baseball bat. A dead boy had backed her into a corner, and he shambled across the yellow linoleum toward her. Dry dirt tumbled from his sleeves and fell in a winding trail behind him.
     He spoke, in a faint and quavering way: "Mom... help me."
     "Stay back," she warned, her voice cracking. "Stay away from me. You're dead. I know you're dead."
     Jack started forward, but Dustin held out an arm to stop him.
     "Mom," the boy said. "What's wrong? Don't hurt me..."
     "Stop it!" the woman shrieked, but her arms shuddered and she collapsed, sobbing. The boy fell upon her. He clawed at her hair, and she thrashed. He tore at her scalp with his teeth.
     Jack cringed and turned away. The woman screamed, then gurgled, then was silent. When Jack looked again, he saw that Dustin was regarding the gruesome scene with fascination.
     Jack growled, "What's wrong with you? We could've stopped it."
     "We're dead now," Dustin said. "We help the dead, not them." He gestured at the woman.
     "You're crazy," Jack said.
     Dustin ignored him. "I want to see this."
     "You--" Jack stopped as the woman rose, her head a cracked and bloody mess. She stepped clumsily forward.
     She moaned.
     "You'd be like her," Dustin whispered. "Mindless... hungry. If that first one had gotten into the car, chewed up your head, before you rose."
     Jack strode into the kitchen, eased around the woman, the boy, and the blood-splattered floor, and stepped toward the phone.
     "I'm calling home," Jack said, lifting the receiver. "I have to call my dad. Tell him I'm--"
     "What?" Dustin said darkly. "All right?"
     Jack hesitated.
     Dustin said, "Jack, you're dead. You're lost to him. He'll never take you in."
     Jack paused a moment, then began to dial. Dustin turned and stepped out into the night. The phone rang once, and instantly someone answered.
     "Jack?" It was his father's voice.
     "I'm coming home," Jack said. "I... can't stay on the line." He hung up.
     He snatched some keys off the counter and slipped from the house. He spotted Dustin, who had walked out into the fields among the great crowds of the dead and was shouting to them,
     "Can you understand me? If you can hear me, step forward. If you understand just that much."
     Jack circled the house, to where a car was parked. He took the car, and drove north for an hour, along Interstate 95, toward Waterville. He stared at his reflection in the rearview mirror. His face was jaundiced, discolored and sickly, but if he covered his gaping stomach then in dim light he might pass for living.
     He pulled up in front of his house and got out of the car. In the front yard lay a dead man whose forehead had a bullet through it. Jack shuddered, and circled around back. The old wood steps creaked as he stepped onto the back porch and knocked. He hung back in the shadows. A curtain was drawn aside, and faces peered out.
     From inside the house someone called: "Jack! It's Jack."
     The door opened, and Jack's father stood there, clutching a rifle. He stared, then gasped and dropped back, raising the gun.
     Jack cowered and said quickly, "Dad. Listen. Please. I'm not like the others." The rifle was now aimed straight at Jack's forehead, and Jack stared into the depths of its barrel.
     Then the barrel slowly sank, as his father lowered the gun.
     Finally his father said, "Come inside, son."
     Jack stepped into the house.

     His father chained him to the rusty pipe that ran out of the side of the garage and into the ground, and said, "I'm sorry. It's only for the night. It's the only way they'll let you stay here." Nine people were holed up in the house--Jack's father had taken in some vacationers.
     Jack whispered sadly, "I understand."
     His father went back inside.
     The moon was bright, and the garage cast a thick black shadow over Jack. All across the neighborhood, dogs were barking. The night seemed to go on forever, and Jack never slept. He supposed that he would never sleep again.
     Days passed.
     Several large groups arrived. Jack stayed out of sight, and most of the visitors departed, headed south. Those who stayed would sometimes let Jack inside, but they kept their distance from him, and always had weapons ready.
     During the day the men went out, scavenging for food and ammunition, and at night they told stories of the dead men they'd destroyed. Then they would glance at Jack and fall silent.
     He was chained up each night, weeks of that.
     One day at dusk, Jack was sitting on a sofa in the living room when gunshots crackled outside. The residents brandished their weapons and took up positions by the windows.
     Someone pounded on the front door. A gruff voice outside hollered, "Let us in! For God's sake, let us in. They're coming."
     Jack's father, rifle at the ready, leapt forward and threw open the door. Two tall men in hunting gear rushed into the house, each of them carrying several guns. Jack's father slammed the door behind them.
     One of the newcomers gasped, "We heard about this house. They said you'd take us in. We've got almost no bullets left."
     Jack's father said, "It's my house, and you're--"
     Then the newcomer spotted Jack and lurched wildly, falling back against the front wall and violently cocking a shotgun. The man screamed, "They're in the house!," and raised his weapon.
     Jack's father leapt in front of the gun and yelled, "Don't shoot! That's my son. He won't hurt you."
     The gun's barrel wove in tight circles as the newcomer sought a clear shot.
     Jack called out, "Please! It's all right."
     The newcomer glanced at his companion, who was now hunched in the corner and moaning, "Oh shit. Oh shit, it's in here with us."
     Jack's father said firmly, "You can leave if you want."
     There was a long, tense silence. Finally, the newcomer lowered his gun and said, "All right. We'll let it alone." He glared at Jack, and added, "But you stay the hell away from me."

     The newcomer was named Sam, and his companion was Todd. Sam was bigger and louder, and leader of the two.
     After things had settled down, Todd explained, "We joined up with a militia to hold Portland. But the dead, they..." He stopped and stared at the floor.
     Sam said flatly, "It's not good down there. Not good at all."
     Jack's father said, "Where did you hear about this house?"
     "In Freeport," Todd said. "Some people had stayed here. There was a girl too. She had a note for your son." Todd fished an envelope out of his vest pocket. He glanced uneasily at
     Jack and said, "I guess that's him."
     Sam grumbled, "Maybe that's not such a good idea."
     Jack's father scowled and said, "Let him have it."
     Todd shrugged and tossed the note out onto the table. Jack scooped up the note and opened it.
     It was from Ashley, letting him know that she was all right and that he should join her if he wasn't safe. She gave the address where she was. Jack stuck the note into his pocket.
     Sam's voice was shaky: "South of here there's this dead kid with no face. People call him the skull-faced boy. He's smart, he can talk, like that one there." Sam nodded at Jack.
     Jack murmured, "Dustin."
     Todd said sharply, "What?"
     Jack said, "He hurt his face like that. I saw it."
     Sam stared, horrified. "You know him?"
     Jack realized that he'd said something wrong.
     "Dustin was a friend from school," Jack's father explained. "He was with Jack the night this... all started."
     Todd's voice was almost hysterical: "Sam! This is crazy. He's one of them. One of the skull-faced boy's--"
     "Shut up!" Sam growled. "Just shut up."
     There was a long silence.
     Jack's father said, "Come on, son. Let's go outside."
     Jack was chained up again. Then he crouched there in the shadow of the garage and listened to the voices that drifted out through the bright cracks in the boarded-up windows.
     First came Jack's father's voice: "What's this all about?"
     Todd replied anxiously, "We lost Portland because of the skull-faced boy. He's organized the dead down south into some sort of army."
     Sam broke in, "He's trained them. They go after people they know--family, friends. The dead act like they have feelings. People hesitate, won't fight, then it's too late."
     Jack's father said, "What's that got to do with us?"
     "Don't you get it?" It was Todd again. "Jack is part of this. He's friends with the skull-faced boy. He's pretending to be nice, just waiting for his chance to strike."
     "He's dangerous," Sam added. "He knows about this house, and now the one in Freeport too. What else does he know? He's got to be destroyed."
     "No," Jack's father said.
     Todd pressed him, "He's not your son anymore. Your son is dead and gone. Now it's just a thing, a thing in your son's body. Using your own love against you."
     Sam added, "People have a right to protect themselves. If one of these folks here went out one night and shot that thing you keep in the backyard, I wouldn't blame them."
     One of the other residents hissed, "Keep your voice down. He might hear."
     After that the voices fell to a low, incomprehensible murmur.
     Jack waited for hours. Then he watched as the back door swung open. A shadowy figure with a gun crept across the yard toward him.
     Was it Sam? Or Todd? Or one of the others? In the darkness, Jack couldn't tell.
     It was his father, who stepped from the shadows, then bent to unlock the chains and said, "It's not safe for you here anymore. I'm sorry."
     "I'm sorry too," Jack whispered, rising to his feet. He hugged his father, then escaped into the night.

     Jack found Dustin's army standing in a great field north of Portland. The thousands of dead milled about in loose formations and watched Jack with their empty eyes. Their groans filled the night.
     Jack moved among them and shouted, "Dustin! I'm looking for Dustin. Dustin, can you hear me?"
     Finally a voice responded, "Hey! Hey you. What do you want?"
     Jack stopped and turned. A balding dead man in olive fatigues was approaching.
     Jack said, "I'm looking for the skull-faced boy."
     "The Commander, you mean," the man replied. "He'll want to see you too. We can use someone like you."
     The man led Jack through the crowds, up to a low hill where a small crowd of dead men conversed in hushed tones. Dustin stood at the peak of the hill, and his back was turned. Standing like that he seemed normal, familiar.
     Jack called out, "Dustin."
     Dustin glanced backward, so that one white eye showed in his eerie skeletal profile. He wore a ratty army jacket. He said, "You've come back." Then he turned away, so that again all that was visible was the back of his head, and said, "Where have you been?"
     "Up north," Jack said.
     Dustin asked, "Did you encounter any of the living? Any armed groups?"
     "No," Jack lied.
     "We'll be headed that way," Dustin continued. "North. Along 95, toward Waterville... Your hometown." He waited for a reaction.
     Jack said nothing.
     Finally Dustin added, "Anyway, it's time for training." He walked out to the edge of the hill and regarded the hordes below, then shouted, "Don't shoot!"
     They moaned back, "Don't... shoot..."
     "It's me!" Dustin yelled. "You know me!"
     The voices of the dead drifted up toward the sky: "It's me... You know me..."
     "Please help me," Dustin shouted.
     "Please... help me..." they wailed.
     Dustin nodded with satisfaction and turned away from the crowds. "That's our strategy, Jack. My soldiers possess determination, but not much else. A resemblance to loved ones is one of our few assets."
     Jack said, "What are you doing? What do you think you're going to accomplish?"
     "Peace," Dustin said, then added, "The living want to destroy us. All of us. Our only chance is to convert them, to make them like us."
     Jack stared at the lines of moaning dead. They stretched as far as he could see.
     Dustin added, "And we're winning, thanks to my plan. I got the idea from that boy, who converted his mother. You remember, that first night, we saw him."
     "To hell with your plan," Jack said angrily. "I lost my home because of your plan."
     Instantly Dustin turned to face Jack and said, "So you did go home." That menacing skull-face leaned in close. "Are people hiding there?"
     Jack turned away.
     "At your house?" Dustin pressed. "Is that where they are? My army's fragile, Jack. They're slow and clumsy and stupid. A nest of armed resistance, even a small one, can wreak havoc. I have to know about it."
     Jack said, "Leave them alone. Leave my father alone."
     "We're headed north, Jack," Dustin said. "The plan is already in motion."
     "Don't," Jack insisted, then added, "Just for now. They won't bother you. Push east. Toward Freeport."
     "Freeport?" Dustin was dismissive. "What's there?"
     Jack reached into his pocket and pulled out the note. He answered in a low voice, "Ashley."

     Later that night, Dustin said to Jack, "She'll have to be converted. It's the only way."
     Jack said, "Killed, you mean."
     "I want her with us," Dustin said. "She's in danger now. Any random dead person might get to her, damage her mind--destroy what makes her special. She'll be safer this way."
     Jack wondered: Why did I do it? Why betray Ashley? To protect his father, yes, but... the truth--he wanted to see her again. Would she accept him, if they were the same? If she were dead too?
     Jack said, "It won't be easy."
     "No," Dustin agreed. "That's why I need you with me. My soldiers follow orders, mostly. I tell them where to march, who to attack, what to say. But I can't stop them from feeding,
     Jack, which means that most of my new recruits arrive as damaged goods. There's not much officer material around here."
     Jack was skeptical. "You want to make me an officer?"
     Dustin answered, "I can't use regular troops for this. There's too much risk to Ashley. I have to use officers--men I can trust not to damage her--and I've got few enough of those."
     Some of the dumb, moaning ones wandered past, and Jack imagined them ripping at Ashley's soft forehead with their teeth.
     "I'll go," Jack said then. "For Ashley. To make sure nothing happens to her."
     "For Ashley," Dustin agreed.

     Dustin called a meeting of his officers, and held up a photograph that showed him and Ashley standing beside a campfire and embracing. Dustin said, "This is her. Make sure she's not damaged."
     The army marched east, thousands of groaning dead shambling along the interstate. Dustin moved among them, shouting orders: "When we reach the town, seek out places you know, people you know. Remember what to say: 'Don't shoot! You know me! Help me!'"
     The mumbled replies echoed through the trees: "Don't shoot... you know me... help me..."
     Dustin had a dozen officers--dead men armed with rifles and pistols--who stayed close by his side. Dustin himself carried a shotgun, and kept a combat knife tucked in his boot. Jack followed along behind them, and held his rifle limply, and stared down at the damp pine needles that passed beneath his feet. He was full of foreboding.
     Dustin lowered his voice and said to his officers, "They've probably never fought dead men like us before--fast, smart, armed. That surprise will be our biggest advantage."
     One of the officers grumbled, "They've spent weeks boarding up this house. How are we going to get in?"
     Jack called out, "I can get us in."
     Dustin turned and studied him, then nodded.
     The house was a sprawling Victorian that sat in the middle of a grove of white cedars. Dustin led the squad forward. They all crouched low and scurried across the lawn in a tight column, their weapons held ready. Jack and Dustin hurried up the front steps while the others ducked behind the porch railing or dropped into the long grass.
     Jack hammered on the door and shouted, "Let us in! It's Sam! For God's sake, let us in, they're coming!"
     After a few moments, he heard the bolt snap out of place. The door opened a crack. Dustin rammed the barrel of his shotgun into the opening and pulled the trigger. Blood exploded through the gap, splattering crimson across the porch, then Dustin kicked open the door.
     The officers sprang up, firearms bristling, and charged into the house. Gunfire rang out all around. Jack was swept along into the foyer, which was already littered with bodies. A staircase led up to the second floor.
     "Cover the stairs," Dustin ordered Jack. "Make sure no one comes down."
     Jack aimed his gun up toward the second floor landing. The other officers poured off into the side rooms, and sounds of violence shook the house.
     Suddenly a doorway under the stairs flew open. Jack swung his rifle to cover it, but then a muzzle flashed and a bullet caught him in the chest, and he stumbled back against a small table and knocked over a lamp, which shattered on the floor.
     Dustin shouted, "The basement! They're in the basement."
     Three of the officers stormed down the basement steps. Beneath Jack's feet the floorboards rattled, and horrible screams filtered up from below. Jack stuck a finger into his chest and rooted out the bullet.
     Another officer jogged up to stand at Dustin's side and said, "Sir, we've got your girl. She's in the study. Bleeding."
     Dustin nodded. "I want to be with her when she rises. Finish this."
     "Yes, sir." The officer walked to the open front door and called out, "Come here. Come on. Now."
     Jack watched, horrified, as crowds of moaning dead men stumbled in through the door and began to gorge on the newly fallen corpses.
     Jack grabbed Dustin's arm and said, "What are you doing? We can use these people."
     Dustin said, "They'll try to shoot us as soon as they rise. It's better this way."
     Jack cast one last grim look at the feeding dead, then followed Dustin through several doorways and into a study.
     Ashley lay in an overstuffed chair, flanked by officers. Her pretty face was still. A trickle of blood flowed from a single bullet hole in the center of her chest.
     One of the officers said, "She's not breathing. It won't be long."
     Dustin ordered, "I want to be alone with her."
     The officers herded Jack from the room. He paced down a long, lonely hallway, then out the front door and into the yard, where he sat, leaning back against a tall white cedar and waiting for Ashley to appear.
     Finally she did, framed in the light of the doorway. Her figure was slender, her hair long and lustrous. But her beautiful face had been carved away, until there was nothing left but eyeballs and bone.
     Dustin came and stood beside her, and their twin skull faces regarded each other.

     Later that night, as Jack and Dustin stood together in the yard, Jack said bitterly, "I can't believe you did that. She was beautiful."
     To which Dustin replied, "Ashley will always be beautiful. To me. You loved her face. I love her. Who deserves her more?"
     "I want to talk to her," Jack said.
     "No, you'll stay away." Dustin's voice held a nasty edge. "Or I'll tell her that you led us here. That you betrayed her."
     Jack flinched, and Dustin strode away, calling over his shoulder, "I'm the only one who understands her now, understands what she's going through."
     For hours Jack wandered aimlessly among the dead, among the masses of rotting flesh. Their awfulness, their stupidity, was overwhelming, and made him want to gag.
     Then, through the clusters of corpses, he caught a glimpse of white skull. He walked away.
     He wound a path through the dead, and sneaked an occasional backward glance. The skull was there. It gained on him.
     Finally, it caught him.
     Ashley said, "Jack. It is you." She leaned her horrible skull-face toward him, and her exposed eyeballs studied him. She said, "Dustin didn't tell me you were here. Say something. Do you recognize me, Jack? Do you understand?"
     He didn't answer.
     Then she was suspicious. "Did you have anything to do with this? Did you help him do this?
     Jack turned away and stumbled off into the hordes. In that moment he envied them--their lack of thought, of remorse. He couldn't bear to confront Ashley. Now there was only one thing he could do, that might deceive her, that might make her leave him alone.
     "Don't hurt me..." he groaned loudly, desperately. "Please... help me."
 

     The story continues in "The Skull-Faced City."
 


Questions or comments? Email me. You can also check out what's new on my blog or browse a complete list of my short stories. And be sure to listen to my Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast, featuring interviews with authors such as Richard Dawkins, George R. R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, Chuck Palahniuk, China Mieville, and Simon Pegg. If you want to support my writing and podcasting, you can make a payment directly to me.