Ghost Road Blues Page 1

Author: Jonathan Maberry

Series: Pine Deep #1

Genres: Horror


One Month Before Halloween This Year

I have wrought great use out of evil tools. Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwe-​Lytton, first Baron Lytton, Richelieu

Every evil in the bud is easily crushed; as it grows older, it becomes stronger. Cicero, Philippicoe

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail And the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail. Robert Johnson, “Hellhound on My Trail”


The last thing Billy said was, “Oh, come on…there’s nothing out there.”

And then two sets of bone-​white hands arched over the slat rails on the wagon and seized him by the shoulders and the collar and dragged him screaming into the darkness. He tried to fight them, but they had him and as he rasped along the rail, feet flailing and hands scrabbling for some desperate purchase, other white figures closed in and he was dragged away.

Claire screamed at the top of her lungs. Everyone else screamed too. Even the guy driving the tractor screamed.

Billy screamed louder than all of them.

Claire launched herself forward from the hay bale on which she’d been sitting just a moment ago holding Billy’s hand; she leaned out into the darkness beyond the rails, her fingers clawing the air as if that could somehow bring him back. Thirty feet away six figures had forced Billy down to the ground and were hunched over him, their white hands reaching down to tear at him with hooked fingers, their black mouths wide with slack-​jawed hunger, their bottomless dead eyes as vacant as the eyes of dolls.

“Billy!” she screamed, and then grabbed at the others around her, pulling at their sleeves, slapping at the hands that tried to pull her back. She wheeled on them—on eighteen other kids, most of them from her own high school, all cringing back against the wooden rails of the flatbed, or trying to hide behind bales of hay—she begged them to help. A few shook their heads. Most just screamed. One boy—a big kid who looked like he might be a jock—made a halfhearted attempt to move forward, but his girlfriend and his buddies dragged him back.

Claire spat at them and spun back, screams still ripping from her throat as she watched Billy’s thrashing arms and legs. She looked up at the man driving the tractor, but he was white-​faced with shock and was frozen in a posture of near flight, half out of his seat.

Then one of the white-​faced things bent low toward him and because of the angle Claire could not see what he was doing, but Billy gave a single high, piercing shriek of absolute agony and then his legs and arms flopped to the ground and lay still.

The moment froze.

Slowly, the creature raised its head from Billy’s body and turned toward the tractor with its towed flatbed of schoolkids. It snarled at them—a low, menacing growl, the kind a dog would give when another animal came close to its food. The creature’s white skin peeled back from its teeth and there, caught between those yellow teeth, was a drooping tube of purple meat that trailed back to the red ruin that was Billy’s stomach.

Claire’s scream rose up above the darkened road, above the vast seas of whispering corn on either side, far up into the swirling blackness that spread like a shroud from horizon to horizon. Flocks of nightbirds cried out and took to the air. The driver stamped down on the gas and the tractor’s engines made a guttural roar as the flatbed was jerked forward.

Three of the creatures rose at the sound and turned to face the tractor, their faces painted with crimson, their jaws working as they chewed. As the tractor inched forward, the wheels still churning in the mud that had stalled it there a few minutes ago, the creatures began moving toward the smell of fresh meat. Of living flesh.

Everyone screamed again and they shouted and cursed at the driver to move, move, move! The man at the wheel kicked down harder and with a great sucking sound the wheels tore free of the mud and the whole mass—tractor, flatbed, and kids—lurched forward, picking up speed with every second. The white-​faced ghouls staggered out into the road and began to follow. Slowly, awkwardly at first, and then faster as they saw their prey gaining ground.

“Move!” the jock roared, and others shouted with him.

The ghouls were trotting now, their awkward gait becoming more orderly as they gained momentum. They were gaining.

Up ahead, the road bent around past a stand of old weeping willows and the driver shifted gears and kept kicking the gas pedal.

“They’re coming!” Claire shrieked.

The tractor was moving faster and faster now, the cold air whipping past the faces of the kids. The ghouls were thirty yards back. Twenty-​five.


The jock was mumbling, “This isn’t happening…this isn’t happening…” over and over again as he clung to his girlfriend.

The tractor took the curve as fast as the driver could manage it, with the flatbed canting sharply to one side and all the kids screaming again as they were pushed one against the other.

It cleared the curve and there in the distance were the lights of the main building. Everyone was still screaming as the tractor roared down the last hundred yards toward the big barn where scores of people stood, each of them caught in a posture of surprise, turned toward the sound of the big engine and the constant screams.

Claire turned and looked back, but the shadows along the road had closed over the leading ghoul. It was gone. Maybe…maybe it had given up.

She sank back against the nearest person, clutching the stranger’s sleeve and weeping brokenly. “Billy!” she kept saying. “Billy…”

The tractor jerked to a stop by the barn and the crowd surrounded the flatbed. The driver stood up, turned around to the kids on the flatbed, and then gave them a bright grin that stretched from ear to ear.

“And that, kids, concludes our ride,” he said, giving everyone a little bow.

The kids on the flatbed stared at him in total, comprehensive shock.

Claire was the first one to stand up. She turned to the other kids, smiled sweetly, took a bow of her own, and let one of the crowd help her down to the ground.

The kids on the flatbed were still stunned to silence.

The driver—a small man named Malcolm Crow who had dark hair, dark eyes, and a wicked grin—plucked his hat off his head and waved it toward the barn. “There’s refreshments at the concession stand. And if you haven’t had enough for one night, visit our haunted house. Only five bucks and it’ll scare the bejesus out of you.”

He winked at the shocked-​white faces, and then hopped down to the ground.

Two older teens in jeans and black staff sweatshirts that had Pine Deep Haunted Hayride: the Biggest, the Best—the Scariest! emblazoned in glow-​in-​the-​dark orange letters stepped up to help the customers down.

The kids on the hayride still didn’t move.

The taller of the two staffers turned to the other. “I don’t know about you, dude, but I think Crow kinda overdid it with this one.”

They glanced at Crow, who was now helping another set of kids climb onto a second flatbed that stood at the far corner of the barn; a third tractor and flatbed was already vanishing into the far distance where the complex maze through the cornfields began. Claire was with him, sipping a Diet Pepsi that someone had given her, and chatting airily to Crow, sharing the highlights.

The shorter staffer said, “Oh, ya think?”

It took them a couple more minutes to convince the huddled teens on the flatbed that everything was all right. It was the jock who broke the spell. He forced a laugh that was supposed to sound like he knew it all the time. “It’s all planned,” he said. “Those two—the girl, the kid that got killed—all part of the show.” He patted his girlfriend’s arm. “I knew it all along. It’s more fun if you play along.”

She looked up at him with a measure of contempt on her face. “Tommy…you screamed like a girl.”

She hopped down and trotted off to the bathroom on wobbly legs, leaving the jock to try and paste on a look of cool indifference. His expression would have been more convincing if his face weren’t gleaming with sweat despite the forty-​six-​degree temperature.

Over at the barn, Malcolm Crow handed the tractor keys to an older man who wore an ancient Pine Deep Scarecrows ball cap over a perpetually sour face.

“Coop,” Crow said, still grinning, “you should’ve seen the looks on their faces. Jee-​sus!” He laughed bent over, hands on his knees, ribs convulsing, shaking his head back and forth like a dog. “Claire and Billy—I’m telling you, Coop, we’re not paying those kids enough. I’m talking Academy Award performances. Damn near had me going.”

Coop just smiled and nodded, but his mouth had a sour twist to it. He wasn’t a bright guy at the best of times and generally didn’t like extremes. Like some of the other staffers, he thought Crow’s latest addition to the Haunted Hayride was a little over the top. He remembered days when the hayride just had kids in fright masks jumping out and going Boo! Simple stuff. Not this weird blood and guts nonsense. It meant adding a bunch of new staffers, including three sets of kids from the Theater Department of Pinelands College to play the doomed couple, one for each of the attraction’s three tractor-​pulled flatbeds.

Coop didn’t think the owner, Terry Wolfe, would approve either, but the problem there was that Mr. Wolfe was also the town mayor and he never—ever—came out to the hayride. To him it was just a seasonal cash cow, and he gave Crow a free hand to do with it as he pleased.

Lately Crow seemed pleased only when the kids came back half a tic away from a genuine coronary. Coop watched Crow laugh it out and when he saw that Crow was looking at him, he measured out half a spoonful of smile.

He said, “What are you going to do if we get some kid from Philadelphia or Trenton who’s got a gun tucked down the back of his pants? Half the kids these days have guns. Bang! There’s Billy or maybe one of the ghouls shot and killed. That might not be so funny.”

Next page