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Authors: Peter Clines

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BOOK: Ex-Purgatory: A Novel
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morning cleaning windows. It was a mindless job, and on a normal day he’d have been glad for it and let himself sink into the Zen of window washing. Today, though, he didn’t want any extra time to think.

His eyes kept drifting over to one of the other buildings. It bothered him for some reason. He had a nagging sensation he’d forgotten something about it. There were lecture halls in there, a bunch of biochem labs, and two or three of the larger storerooms. He couldn’t shake the feeling there’d been a fire there at some point, or maybe some kind of explosion.

Something in the back of his mind insisted he’d been
a fire in one of the buildings.

It was almost noon when he heard two kids chattering away as they passed his ladder. What they were saying didn’t make sense to him, so he pulled out his phone and shot a quick text to Nick. The answer came back a minute later.

Hugh Laurie is not dead, either. Y U on such a morbid streak?

George sighed. Nick was right. He was getting morbid. Madelyn’s talk of doom and destruction mixed well with the weight of sleeplessness.

He flipped the phone in his hand and his fingers brushed the screen. It jumped to the default phone keypad and he paused. A string of numbers stretched across the screen. He didn’t recognize them, not even the area code. It took a moment for him to remember tapping them into the phone that morning. It felt like ages ago.

He knew he should just erase the number to Sandia. It was tempting fate. He didn’t want to call and ask a bunch of stupid questions that would make him sound like an idiot. An idiot if he was lucky. It was a national lab. He wasn’t sure what that meant, but he felt pretty sure if they told the FBI about weird phone calls, their complaint would end up a little higher on the list than most.

And calling would just feed this whole delusion the girl had shared with him. Her fictional dreamworld where everyone was dead and he was some kind of superhero. He didn’t need to get mixed up in that sort of thing, especially with a student.

Then again, if he was a superhero, shouldn’t he be brave enough to make the call?

His thumb hovered over the keypad for a moment. Then, without any real thought from him, the thumb dropped down. The little handset icon flashed once and the screen changed under his fingertip.


There was still time to hang up, he told himself. Even when the call connected and he heard the first ring, he knew he could hit the red
button. It wasn’t like they’d call back on a hang-up.

The phone picked up just after the second ring. “Sandia National Labs,” recited a male voice. “How can I direct your call?”

“Ummmm …” said George. “Hi. I’m looking for, that is, I’m trying to reach …”


The name leaped to his tongue. “Barry. I think his name’s Barry … Burke.”

“Oh,” said the voice. “Sure thing. One second.”

The phone clicked and a Muzak version of Bruce Springsteen’s
“Radio Nowhere” echoed over the lines. His heart raced. He hadn’t felt this way about a phone call since he was fourteen.

A minute passed before the phone clicked again. “This is Barry,” said a new voice.

“Hi,” he said. “Barry Burke?”

“The one and only. I’ll be appearing in Las Vegas next month from the fifteenth ’til the sixteenth. And this is …?”

“I’m …”

Stupid. George suddenly felt very stupid. The girl, Madelyn, had played him. She’d looked up the Pulsed Power machine, found some names online, and convinced him to make the call. Reverse psychology or something like that. It was some sorority prank or something.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I think I’ve got the wrong number.”

The man on the other end laughed. He sounded like a guy who laughed a lot. “I’m the only Barry here,” he said. “If there’s another Z Machine somewhere with another Barry Burke, he’d better have a goatee and a sash.”

George chuckled. “No, it’s just … I’m sorry. I think this is just a big mistake. Sorry for wasting your time.”

“Ummm … okay. You sure?”

George looked over at the lab building. He thought about his dreams and the strange homeless people he’d been seeing. He remembered Madelyn’s story about a best friend he couldn’t remember.

“Look,” he said, “this is going to sound really stupid, I know, but can I ask you something?”

Another laugh echoed from New Mexico. “You’re keeping me from a boring staff meeting, stranger on the phone. Ask me anything.”

“Are you in a wheelchair?”

The voice on the other end went silent. George realized what a jackass he sounded like. The silence stretched out for ten seconds, and he wondered if the other man had hung up on him.

“Who is this?” Barry Burke asked.

“I’m sorry,” he said to the phone. “That was really insensitive of me. I didn’t mean to be so—”

“Is this George?”

The phone jumped away from his head. Or maybe his hand spasmed. He stared at it for a moment, then pulled it back to his ear.

“Are you still there?” asked the man in Albuquerque.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m still here. I just … you know me?”

“Your voice is familiar,” said Barry. “I couldn’t place it and then I realized you sound like the guy in my dreams. Which sounds very different than I intended out loud.”

George felt light-headed. He slumped against the wall next to his bucket of soapy water. “You have dreams about me?”

“I guess. You’re six feet tall, blond-brown hair … Ummm, I don’t suppose you’re super-strong, by chance?”

He thought of the dumpster. “Maybe?”

Barry whistled. “Who’s the redhead?”


“There’s a redhead in my dreams, too. Kind of cute. I think she wears …” His voice trailed off. “I think she might be a knight. Like a King Arthur–Excalibur–type knight. Or maybe a Gundam pilot.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know. I haven’t … I don’t think I’ve actually dreamed about you.”

He sensed the shift, even over the phone. “You haven’t?”

“I don’t think so.”

“So how’d you know to call me?”

“There’s a girl out here,” explained George. “A young woman. She knows … she claims to know a lot of stuff. She says I’ve forgotten things. That everyone has.”

“Is she dead?”

“What? No. She’s just—”

A set of sounds and images flashed across George’s mind. Meeting Madelyn for the first time on moving day. Meeting her again in the cafeteria.

“I’m Madelyn Sorensen,” she said. “The Corpse Girl.”

He glanced up from the magazine and saw a dead girl in a wheelchair

His voice trailed off.

Barry cleared his throat. “Still there?”

“Yeah, sorry. This is all … this is all a little weird. And overwhelming.”

“Tell me about it. I’ve been thinking I was going nuts or something.”

George thought of the other thing Madelyn had mentioned. “Is there anyone else in your dreams? Any other people?”

“A bunch,” said Barry. “There’s you, the redhead, this huge Army officer—”

“I’ve met him,” George said. “He’s here in LA. Lieutenant Freedom.”

“Lieutenant? That doesn’t sound right.”

Something pulsed behind George’s left eye, the faintest hint of an oncoming headache. “I didn’t think so, either, but it seemed to make him upset to talk about it.”

“But he’s real? You’ve actually seen him.”

“I shook his hand this morning.”

“Frak me,” said the other man. “Anyway, there’s all of them, a ninja, the dead girl, and a ghost.”

Now the pulse was behind both of his eyes. It had grown from a firm hint to a scheduled meeting in no time at all. “Did you say a ghost?”

“Yeah. I think that may just be a dream thing. I don’t think it means anything.” He paused for a moment. “Can I tell you something else? Or ask you something else, I guess?”


“This one’s going to sound really weird.”

“Weirder than the whole ‘random strangers hundreds of miles apart sharing dreams’ thing?”

“Yeah,” said Barry, “I think so. This is like first-season-
-level weirdness.”


“Have you ever heard of George Romero?”

He wrinkled his brow. It took a minute to get his mental footing again. “The film director?”

“Yes!” The voice on the phone sounded relieved. “Okay, part two. Do you know what kind of movies he makes?”

“Errrr … horror movies?”

“Yeah, but what kind of horror movies? Can you be more specific?”

George rubbed his temple. The headache was swelling inside his skull. “Ummm … monster movies, aren’t they? Gory ones.”

“But what kind?” insisted Barry. “Vampires? Werewolves? What’s the monster?”

“I don’t know,” George said. “I’m not really into the whole horror thing.”

“Well, I am,” said Barry. “I’m a big ol’ geeky fanboy. One of the biggest. And you know what?”

“What?” George’s headache arrived and settled in. The sun hurt his eyes. The sounds coming from his phone were sharp and grating, like needles in his ear.

“I don’t know what kind of monsters they are, either,” said the man in Albuquerque. “I’ve checked Google, Netflix, Amazon, a couple fansites. I’ve been trying to figure it out for days and I don’t know.”


from his fingers. His head was pounding. His pulse was pounding in his ears like a car blasting its subwoofer. He’d never had a migraine before, but this had to be worse. Some part of him wondered if a blood vessel or something might’ve burst in his head. Maybe an aneurysm. It wasn’t hard to believe these could be the last seconds of his life.

He heard a rasping noise in front of him. He lifted his head and forced his eyes open. It took a moment for his vision to focus.

A group of people stood in front of him. Students and faculty, on a guess. There were three women and two men. In the corner of his eye he could see another man walked toward him. A couple watched from a few yards away.

They were all dead.

The corpse closest to George had a red fire axe buried in the top of its shoulder. The axe wobbled and sent the dead thing close to tipping over every time it moved. A woman’s shirt had three bullet holes ringed with dark stains. An overweight young man held out arms that were gnawed down to the bone. At least half his fingers were missing. A dead girl with one eye had a monkey backpack looped over her shoulders.

Their jaws moved up and down, and their teeth cracked together again and again. Some of them had chipped or broken their enamel. The axe man had nothing but jagged stumps. The
sound of their teeth was like hail or bubble wrap, a constant

George twisted away from them and took a few steps along the side of the building. The long grass brushed his knees. He glanced up at the gray building. Thick grime coated the windows he’d been cleaning. Years of dust and condensation, streaked and spotted from rainfall.

The dead people staggered after him. The corpse with the gnawed arms stumbled and fell face-first into the side of the building. Its face crunched against the brick. The others made slow adjustments and shifted their paths to follow.

His head was still pounding and nausea tickled the back of his tongue. He thought about calling campus security, but his phone was somewhere back in the tall grass. Even if he could get past the creatures, he wasn’t sure how long it would take him to find it. He ran in a wide circle around the dead things and headed out along the long walkway of the Court of Sciences.

At least two dozen more monsters staggered in the courtyard. Maybe more. A few wore gore-splattered suits and ties. Some others had backpacks or messenger bags. One dead woman wore a UCLA sweatshirt. Something with one leg and long hair was dragging itself across the pavement. It had worn its face and chest down so far George couldn’t tell if it had been a man or a woman. The sound of clicking teeth echoed between the buildings.

A dead thing over by the Geology building was wearing a campus security uniform. It was missing an arm. It raised the arm it did have at George, as if it could grab him from across the plaza.

The court looked old. Weeds pushed up between the bricks. The small trees were withered and brown. Dark stains dotted the whole area, along with a few pieces of sun-dried garbage that looked like dead animals, but not enough to hide what they’d really been. The few windows around the court that weren’t shattered had more streaks of grime.

Part of him, some animal, instinctive part, told him to run. Just run. That part shrieked in time with his pulsing headache. The corpses were still spread out wide enough to dodge. But he
wasn’t sure where to go. Back to the maintenance office? Back to his car?

And another part of him wanted to fight. Something told him these things weren’t a threat. Not to
, anyway. Buried right down next to the instinct to run was a certainty the dead things couldn’t hurt him.

Running still won out.

George ran a dozen feet and the throbbing pain in his skull made his eyes water. He made it a few more steps and fell to his knees. His stomach was churning and his throat trembled with the promise of impending vomit. Something burned at the back of his mouth.

The dead people closed in around him. They dragged their feet. Fingertips brushed his shoulders. They gnashed their teeth and the
of ivory hit a rhythm with the pounding in his skull.

He tried to get up but the nausea had crippled him. He bent over, his throat convulsed, and something hot forced its way into his mouth. It felt like wet smoke and acid streaming out between his teeth.

“Jesus,” said someone. “You okay, guy?”

George managed a deep breath and opened his eyes. He’d retched nothing onto the pavement. His nausea and headache had vanished like a light being turned off.

He looked up. A man in a suit and a campus security guard stood over him. “You looked pretty bad there for a moment,” said the suit. He was bald and wore square eyeglasses.

BOOK: Ex-Purgatory: A Novel
8.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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