After an eighteen-year absence, Raine drove past marshlands and farmhouses toward her remote, coastal hometown. She no longer remembered why she’d stayed away so long—maybe the distance, or a long-forgotten disagreement, not to mention having no one to cover for her at Serenity, the nursing home facility that she ran? But with her father’s failing health, she had to see him one last time. She shook off the thought and gazed at the surrounding landscape. Bogue Isle, an adjoining seaside town, was barely recognizable with its boutique hotels and trendy cafes. And ten miles down the road, a pang of loneliness gripped her chest when she passed her old high school, a sprawling one-story brick building situated behind a lily field. The once massive football field now looked overgrown and miniscule. How long had it been since she’d spoken to any of her old classmates? Thirty, maybe thirty-five years? Then, exactly ten hours since leaving her mid-west home, she entered the sleepy village of Willistowne.
Areas of the town looked exactly as she remembered, simple Craftsman homes with large front porches tucked away under towering pine trees. But the upscale beach homes with lavish patios built along the sandy stretch of shore next to the old boat house looked out of place in the simple down-home community. She slowed when she crossed the bridge over Jarrod Sound and rounded the curve to the small local cemetery. Instinctively, she cruised off the road and onto the grass. Not sure why she had stopped, she sat and stared straight ahead. Fighting sleep, she took a last gulp of coffee as she stretched her aching legs and climbed from her car. Inside the overgrown burial ground, she leaned over and read the headstones of long-gone relatives. Covered in mildew and spider webs, a bouquet of plastic roses rested on top of her mother’s grave. Raine’s heart ached when she thought of how much her mom had loved flowers. She’d once been awarded Best Garden by the local botany society and had kept the blue ribbon on her bedroom wall until she’d died. Next to her mother, lay Raine’s baby brother, Jacob, whose unmarked grave had worn with age as relentless storms had left behind a film of silt and grime. She looked around at other headstones of the many residents who had died since she’d last visited, including her elementary school teacher, Miss Minnie, and the church pianist. When she next checked her watch, it was half past five, so she returned to her Jeep for the short drive to Aunt Delta’s, where her father and big brother, Robert, waited for her.
But a mile down the road, she couldn’t locate the dirt drive to her house. None of the terrain looked familiar; nor could she spot Aunt Delta’s home. After driving two miles out of her way, looking for a turnaround, she headed back west, but the scenery still looked oddly out of place with new row houses that she’d never seen. She parked at the empty post office lot and walked back in the direction of her home. She was bound to find it this way. Finally, she vaguely recognized a house resembling her aunt’s, but what had happened to her childhood home next door? As she stood in Aunt Delta’s front yard, a feeling of dread washed over her. The once brilliant eggshell-blue home with colorful window boxes now appeared uninhabitable and looked more like an abandoned building. Trees had overtaken the roof, and dozens of stacked boxes and old tools and trash cluttered the front porch. Slowly, Raine climbed five crumbling steps and tapped on the rusty front door.
An unfamiliar heavy-set woman greeted her. “It’s about time. We’d given up on you.”
Inside the jumbled living room, Aunt Delta vigorously rocked back and forth as she knitted. She wore dark glasses, and her long blonde hair was twisted into an old-fashioned bun. Dressed in a bathrobe, Raine’s 90-year-old father, frail and slumped in an easy chair, registered no recognition of his daughter. His oversized reflective sunglasses made his small head resemble a large bug.
“Dad, what’s wrong with your eyes?”
When he didn’t answer, Aunt Delta stopped knitting. “Severe photosensitivity. We both have it.” She then motioned toward the unfamiliar woman. “This is Lula, my home aide.”
Raine looked around the room at the mishmash of books and boxes. In one corner, a clothes rack held an array of old castoffs, and a stack of firewood filled the entire back wall. Raine couldn’t put her finger on a peculiar odor that filled the air. Feeling more like a stranger than family, she perched on the edge of the worn sofa, still wearing her heavy autumn sweater. “Where’s Robert?”
Without looking up, her aunt motioned with her head. “The bathroom.”
Lula spoke in choppy sentences, like a robot. “We’ve been holding supper. Till you got here.”
Delta tossed her knitting onto the floor. “I’m starved.” She stood unsteadily and leaned into her walker. “Let’s go.”
The soles of Raine’s shoes made sticky sounds in the kitchen as she walked through years of ground in grease and grime. How long since it had been mopped? Five mismatched place settings had been squeezed onto the small Formica table. An array of utensils had been tossed in the center. Raine took the seat facing the window.
Right on cue, Robert emerged from the bathroom and sat next to Raine, looking decades older than his fifty-eight years. He stared down at his plate through dark-tinted Coke bottle glasses. “Hi, Sis.”
A lump constricted Raine’s throat. “Robert.”
Raine’s father hobbled into the kitchen. “Oh, Lordy,” he said and winced as he eased into his chair, his life force burning as dimly as a 10-watt bulb. At the stove, Lula poured a stew into a large bowl and then used a ladle to spoon servings onto each plate. She sat down next to Delta. “Let’s eat.”
Indistinguishable mush floated on top of a reddish fluid. Raine stirred it around. “What is this?”
When Lula spoke, broth dribbled down her chin. “Goulash.”
As Raine lifted the spoon to her mouth, a roach crawled from the stew. She shrieked, and the spoon clanked against the plate.
Aunt Delta looked up. “What on earth?”
“A roach.” Raine pointed as it crawled across the table, sniffing the air. Its antenna wriggled.
Lula dismissively flapped her hand. “A roach never hurt anyone. They’re especially bad this year.” She resumed sipping broth.
Raine turned to Robert, but he avoided her gaze as he shoveled more stew into his mouth. She dabbed at her mouth with a paper napkin and folded her hands in her lap. When she looked out the window, a figure was darting behind an old crib house where her aunt stored vegetables. It happened so quickly that she couldn’t be sure if it was human or animal.
“Go ahead and eat,” her aunt told her.
“That’s okay.” Raine lied. “I had a late lunch.” She peered out the window, looking for the shape she’d seen.
Delta slurped more stew. “We’ve got something to show you after lunch.”
She turned to her aunt. “Oh yeah. What’s that?”
Raine already regretted making the long journey, the oddness and all. Feeling as nothing more than an outsider, maybe eighteen years was too wide a gap to bridge. “Dad, what happened to our house? It’s gone.”
He spoke without looking up. “What do you mean? It’s where it’s always been.”
“I didn’t see it.” Something about her father raised the hairs on the back of her neck, a void, as if no one existed behind the reflective glasses.
“Weeds have grown up around it,” Aunt Delta told her.
After Lula cleared the table, she asked, “Dessert? I made a blood pie.”
Raine gulped. “No thank you.”
Delta raised her finger. “I’ll have a slice.”
When Lula cut into it, a thick, reddish fluid oozed from the crust and small bits wriggled from the pie, like worms.
When everyone had finished their dessert, Delta disappeared into the next room and emerged wearing an old sweater. “Better bundle up,” she said. “We’re heading out.” She handed Raine’s father a jacket. “Put this on, Brother.”
Raine buttoned the thick sweater she hadn’t bothered removing. She couldn’t imagine what her aunt had to show her—maybe some old relic they’d discovered in the attic? The family moved through the dilapidated screened-in porch and into the back yard filled with stray branches and pecans. Lula marched in front and led the group up more steps and into the old crib house. As a child, the crib house had frightened Raine with its cobwebs and creepy crawlies.
Her heart rapped hard against her chest as she followed closely behind her family into the dark dwelling that smelled of old rags and grime. As the family formed a semi-circle, Lula pulled a light cord and a naked bulb illuminated the room. Old crates stacked against one wall reminded Raine of her great Uncle Elmer, who had spent his days in there, sitting on the crates, whittling. His old coveralls still hung from a nail, and she half-expected to see him rounding the corner. A hodgepodge of discarded tools had been cast into a corner. And then her eyes moved slowly to the rear of the room, and when she saw it, she pressed her hand to her mouth to muffle a scream. A dozen or more lifeless piglets hung upside down from hooks. Their maggot-covered faces seemed to cry out for help. Had she stepped into a nightmare? Her voice rose in panic. “Oh my God! What is this?”
“This is why it was so important that you returned,” her aunt said. “This is Phase I of the operation. I’d like to show you Phase II.”
“What?” Numb from shock, she turned to her father and Robert, but they stared at the piglets, seemingly transfixed by the sight. Had the entire family lost its mind?
Delta pulled a book from a rickety shelf. “It’s all right here in this book that we discovered buried under the floor when we decided to replace the rotted boards.” She held up an archaic book with a worn cover entitled Resurrection. A pentagram and goat were featured on the cover. “It’s a miracle we ever found it.”
“This is sick.” Raine raced outside. Her earlier curiosity had morphed into terror. She leaned over and heaved. She wanted nothing more than to hop into her car and drive away as quickly as possible, but she’d left her purse and keys inside the main house. “I don’t feel well,” she told her aunt. “I think I’d better drive back home.”
Delta lowered her voice and stared through Raine. “That would be the worst thing you could possibly do.”
Raine looked to her father who stood motionless, still wearing the reflective glasses. “I don’t understand any of this.”
“Be patient and I’ll explain the whole thing. Let’s pay a little visit next door. Lead the way, Lula.”
Lula marched in front, ushering the family across a field filled with crunchy autumn leaves, in the direction of Raine’s old childhood home. Delta shuffled slowly behind on her walker while Robert locked arms with their dad and steadied him. Raine had the sensation of moving toward a cemetery. Then, she saw it once again, a figure darting into the woods. She pointed. “There it is again.” She looked at her brother with questioning eyes.
In his first real show of emotion, Robert placed his hand on her shoulder. “Sis, don’t you know who that is?”
She shook her head.
“It’s Jacob, Sis. It’s Jacob.”
“No! Jacob’s dead. He got killed over fifty years ago.”
“But’s that the miracle of this whole thing.”
Raine’s legs went limp, like she might faint. Robert steadied her against an old oak tree where she took deep breaths. “Why are you all doing this to me? I just want to go home.”
Robert leaned in and spoke softly, so as not to be overheard. “You can’t leave. Dad’s life depends on it. You’ll understand it all soon.”
Raine swiped tears from her cheek and straggled toward her old home. With most of the house suffocated by weeds, the chimney finally peeked through a tangled web of branches. From a distance, the dwelling reminded her of old slaughterhouses she’d seen in horror movies with tarpaper flaps for doors. Her insides quivered as they neared the front entrance that hung loosely from its hinges. Lula led the family through a dilapidated utility room and into a kitchen where the floor had caved in. Her mom’s oak dining table lay on its side, and a colony of spiders had formed a home in the corner and waved their legs at Raine as she passed by. She couldn’t believe this had once been her childhood home. Why had the family let it fall into such disrepair?
She couldn’t make sense of what Robert had said about their little brother, Jacob. Maybe the entire family suffered from a collective delusion. She’d read about these occurrences in isolated areas of the world.
Delta limped along on her walker. “Watch your step. There’s snakes in here.”
“Snakes?” Raine regretted not escaping when she’d had the chance, but with Robert saying their father’s life depended on it, what could she do? So she watched her feet and took cautious steps.
Lula held up her hand when they approached the back bedroom. “Before we go inside, we need to explain a few things.”
Delta turned to her niece. “What we’re about to show you defies the imagination. But it’s all laid out in the book. Keep an open mind. Then we’ll tell you how you can help.” She pushed open the squeaky old door, where inside, two bodies lay on the bed. Raine pulled the collar of her sweater up over her nose to ward off the stench. The blood rushed from her head as she tried to make sense of what she saw. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be. But despite the black, decaying flesh, she’d recognize them anywhere, her great Uncle Elmer and her mother. The room spun around her as she grasped a nearby chair and slumped into it. Thousands of maggots covered the corpses, and a repugnant odor filled the air.
“You’re crazy! You’re all crazy,” she told her family in a labored voice. “I was just at the cemetery. How’d you dig them up?”
“Never mind how they got here,” Delta said. “This is where you come in. The book lays out a plan to resurrect our loved ones. The maggots are key. They must feast on infant flesh for a week. This is why we use the newborn piglets. Next, they need protein and the DNA of relatives. That’s where the family comes in. Only then do we transfer the maggots to the corpses of loved ones. This is how we brought Jacob back. It’s easier with children.”
Raine covered her face and whimpered. Then, one of the corpses moaned.
Delta cackled. “Did you hear that, Brother? Elmer just made a sound. He’s coming around.”
Raine scanned the room. Maybe when no one was looking, she’d dart out of the house and speed away. But Robert and her dad stood directly behind her, and Lula watched closely from the corner. Would they kill her if she didn’t cooperate? “I don’t understand,” Raine said. “What does this have to do with dad?”
Delta nodded. “It takes a toll, the maggots. They suck away our life force and cause premature aging. That’s why Brother is so weak. He can’t do it anymore. It’s getting to me too. You’re the only living relative who can help. We need your DNA and protein to feed the maggots so they can transfer it to the corpses. Without your help, we likely can’t fully bring back Elmer and your mother. Do you want that on your conscience? We’ve gone too far to back down now.” Delta clutched Lula’s hand. “Lula is your great grandmother. She died years before you were born, but we resurrected her.”
Raine stared back in disbelief. “This is absolutely insane. Why are you doing this?”
“You wouldn’t ask if you’d read the book. We’ve been handed the miracle of everlasting life.”
Trying to make sense of the situation, Raine pressed her hand to her forehead. “But how do the maggots get our protein and DNA?”
Delta looked at Robert and at Raine’s father and in unison, all three removed their glasses.
“Oh God!” Through tear-filled eyes, Raine watched as maggots clung to their eyeballs, sucking away at the plasma. Several maggots wriggled from her father’s eyes and crawled onto his cheek.
“This is why we wear the dark glasses,” Delta added. “The maggots can’t tolerate the light.”
Raine’s left arm went limp, and in a slurry voice, she protested. “I won’t do it. Let me go. Let me go.”
Rained wheezed and twisted the sheet in her hand.
“Wake up, Miss Raine. Wake up.”
Disoriented, Raine opened her eyes. She didn’t recognize her surroundings. A young woman stood over her, on her chest a shiny tag that read Serenity. “I’m Sarah, your nurse for the shift.”
“Nurse? Where am I?”
“Saint Grace’s Hospital.”
“The hospital? How’d I get here?”
“Don’t you remember? You had a minor stroke. Thank God your family sought help immediately. Hopefully, you’ll have a full recovery.”
Raine searched her memory. “I didn’t have a stroke. My family’s crazy. If I told you what they’ve done, you’d lock me up and throw away the key.”
“Now, Miss Raine. That’s just the sleep medication talking. It can cause unusual dreams. In fact, I’ve got a surprise. Your family is right outside, waiting to drive you home for the weekend.”
“No. I won’t go. You can’t make me go.”
Nurse Sarah squeezed Raine’s hand. “You’re on blood thinners. You’ve suffered brain trauma. You’re not allowed to leave the hospital alone or even in a cab. We can only release you to your next of kin. I just met your relatives. They’re sweethearts.”
Five hundred miles from her Midwestern home, no way would Raine’s best friend drive that far to get her. Plus, she had no other family in the area to help.
Seemingly unconcerned with Raine’s pleas, Sarah motioned, and when Raine looked up, her family stood by her bed, all three wearing dark glasses.
Robert leaned down and kissed her cheek. “Hi, Sis. Excited about going home?”
“Oh, Robert. Help me.”
He and the nurse exchanged looks, and in a soft voice, Sarah said, “She’s had a rough night, the medications and all.”
“They want to put maggots in my eyes! Maggots in my eyes!”
Sarah patted Raine’s hand. “Now, now, Miss Raine. Your family’s waiting. Let’s get your stuff together.”
Raine’s body quivered as Delta tossed toiletries into an overnight bag. For a moment, she thought of calling hospital security, but what could she say; that her family had dug up relatives and used piglets and maggots to resurrect them? They’d transfer her to the psychiatric unit where she’d lose everything. And then Raine’s blood ran cold. What if the nurse was right, that she’d had a stroke, and maybe her surreal memory was nothing more than a well-constructed delusion caused by medications and brain damage? She’d been around elderly people her entire career. She knew the tricks the mind played.
Sarah rolled up a wheelchair and spoke softly. “If the visit goes well, you can move home permanently. Wouldn’t that be nice? But if you’re unhappy when you return to the hospital, you can meet with the charge nurse and make other arrangements upon discharge.”
Delta nodded toward an overweight woman standing by the door. “You remember Lula, my home aide. She’s our driver.” Then Delta handed Raine a pair of dark glasses. “Put them on.”
Practically a hostage with no transportation of her own, Raine played along. Once back at Aunt Delta’s, she’d make some excuse to go outside, and when no one was looking, she’d rush to the post office where she’d left her car and speed away, never to return.
Sarah helped Raine out of bed and into the wheelchair. “You’re a lucky woman. You have a family that loves and cherishes you.” Raine silently rode in the chair as Sarah pushed her down the long hallway and into the parking lot. At the edge of a large field filled with dahlias and goldenrod, a small child waited. Raine instantly recognized him. His name was Jacob.
Kelly Piner is a Clinical Psychologist who in her free time, tends to feral cats and searches for Bigfoot in nearby forests. Ms. Piner’s short story “Blackout” was recently published in Scarlet Leaf Review’s anniversary issue. Her story, “Dead and Gone,” was just named Honorable Mention in Allegory’s upcoming issue. Her short story “The Old Man and the Cats” was published by Storgy Magazine. Weirdbook’s annual zombie issue featured Ms. Piner’s short Story “Lazy River.” Her stories have appeared in multiple anthologies. She also has short stories published in The Literary Hatchet, East of the Web and in be-a-better-writer.com. Shejust completed her first novel, FAT SANDS.