Authors: Edward P. Cardillo
The Creeping Dead
Edward P. Cardillo
Copyright © 2015 by Edward P. Cardillo
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, events, and dialogues either are the products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Edward P. Cardillo
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
I would like to thank my wife, Sandra, who has been my editor, coach, and agent. I would also like to thank Alan Basso for his extra set of eyes, his brain, his feedback, and his support. Thanks again to Gary Lucas at Severed Press. Thank you to my son, Alexander, who keeps my imagination wild.
This novel is dedicated to the Jersey Shore, my summer home away from home and the source of so many fond childhood memories.
Opening Pandora’s Box
“This is Mark Altman here on the Jersey Shore, in the small resort town of Smuggler’s Bay, in the midst of two strong weather fronts culminating in what is becoming Superstorm Rodney.”
The cameraman followed him up a wooden ramp. As the camera jostled around a bit, Mark Altman’s hat blew off his head, and his raincoat and hair flapped madly in the wind.
“As you can see, we are now up on the Smuggler’s Bay boardwalk, and—right behind me (the camera pans and zooms past Mark’s shoulder)—you can see the surf encroaching up the beach, practically to the boardwalk.”
The sky was a dark gray, and the clouds raced by as if something chased them. The ocean surged up the beach, the sand no longer visible under the churning surf.
“Pretty soon the water will be washing up onto the boardwalk and eventually into the residential community behind it.”
Shouts came from behind the cameraman. A few police officers emerged into view.
“We have now with us members of the local law enforcement.”
One officer stepped in front of the camera and addressed Mark directly. “You can’t be out here right now,” he shouted over the howling winds, the boom microphone bouncing off of his blue cap. “It’s too dangerous!”
Everybody ducked and flinched as a wall of water hit the public restroom behind them, off to the right, splashing vertically into the air, sending foam and spray across the boardwalk.
“See what I mean?” shouted the Chief into Mark’s face.
The camera panned right, zooming down the boardwalk. Water surged over the edge of the boardwalk, through the green chain linked fence, and around potted palm trees and wooden benches. The sky ride chairs swung in the high winds.
“What’s that?” asked the cameraman, lowering the camera and pointing.
In the distance, figures shambled down the boardwalk. There were about a dozen of them, spread apart.
“Those…those are people,” said Mark in astonishment. “There are people walking down the boardwalk?”
“Jesus Christ,” said the Chief. He turned to Mark. “Get off this boardwalk, now!” He motioned to his officers, and they took off down the boardwalk toward the walkers.
Mark Altman didn’t miss a beat. “There you have it from Chief Holbrook, the boardwalk is no longer a safe place to be. The various businesses and shops are all boarded-up, sandbags forming what will likely be a futile barrier against the relentless surf now encroaching on the boardwalk.”
The camera was still focused on the police officers as they splashed their way toward the oblivious pedestrians.
Mark continued his commentary off camera. “They’re walking erratically…they appear to be…intoxicated. Don’t you worry, the Chief will make sure they’re escorted off the boardwalk to safety…excuse me.”
The camera wheeled back around to find Mark with his back turned toward a couple more walkers, a man and a woman, closing in on them.
“Excuse me,” Mark shouted at them over the howling wind, rain battering his face and fogging up his glasses. “It’s not safe on the boardwalk.”
The man and woman either were unable to hear him, or they just ignored him, and kept walking toward Mark, the rain and the camera lens fogging up, blurring their features.
“Mark, there’s something wrong with them,” said the cameraman.
Now only fifty or so feet away, the walkers’ features came into view. They both had dark circles around their eyes and a strange pallor to their skin. The girl walked as if her feet were shackled, and the man was dragging his right foot sideways on its ankle behind him.
“They don’t look so good,” said Mark to the cameraman. Then to the walkers, “Are you hurt? Do you need assistance? Larry, wait here. I’ll go get the Chief.”
“Okay,” answered the cameraman nervously.
Mark handed Larry his microphone and took off down the boardwalk toward the Chief and his men. The camera wheeled around again, the features of the closing walkers becoming more distinct. The man’s lip was curled up in a sneer, his eyes wide. The girl was…grinning, her eyes wild. They were reaching out for the camera.
The cameraman started to back away from them, the camera half-pointed downward, filming the walkers’ feet. A bone jutted out of the side of the man’s ankle, its sharp end scraping the wood of the boardwalk planks. It stuck out farther every time the man put weight on it, while the foot flopped around on the boardwalk, splashing in the water.
“Mark! Oh, Jesus…Mark!”
Suddenly, the camera jerked up as the cameraman collided with something behind him. Hands reached around, forearms blocking the view of the camera as the cameraman screamed into the howling wind.
There were wet ripping and growling sounds as the man and woman caught up, their faces popping in and out of view as the camera swung back and forth.
There was a loud crashing sound as water came rushing into frame, covering the cameraman’s feet. The camera dropped to the ground, and the picture went black.
The network cut the audio when the cameraman’s screams died down into gurgling and the growls turned into ravenous chomping.
Three Weeks Earlier
“Do you have a problem with bodily fluids…blood, pus, urine…fecal matter?”
“No, I don’t. I’ve worked at a preschool, so I was frequently in the vicinity of all of that.”
“Yes, I can imagine. I’m sure you’ve built up quite the resistance to germs. This type of setting is different. It’s not like any other settings in the field. As a consultant, you would enjoy a generous sense of autonomy, but it won’t exempt you from the politics of the facility. And believe me, there are plenty to go around.”
“I understand. I like to think that I play well with others.”
“That’s only part of it. While you are there to service your caseload, you are also there to service the facility. Often the two can be reconciled, and sometimes they can’t be. You’ll be walking a tightrope between caring for your patients vs. keeping the administrator happy.”
Tara nodded. “In the preschool, what’s in the best interest of the children is not always what keeps the principal or assistant principal happy. I’ve walked this tightrope before.”
Dr. Loews smiled. “Dr. Bigelow, how do you believe your experience with preschool children relates to working with the elderly?”
Tara was prepared for this question and didn’t hesitate. “Preschool children, particularly the ones I worked with, have impulse control difficulties, behavioral disinhibition, and in some cases, limited language skills. Their impulse control and limited language can cause them to act out. Much like an elderly patient who’s had a stroke, or a dementia patient.”
“Yes, well, you won’t be seeing moderately or severely demented individuals as per Medicare/Medicaid regulations.”
“Dr. Bigelow, your practice within the nursing home must adhere strictly to federal regulations. Your paperwork must be timely and accurate. You will be audited by our group quarterly and by the State annually. Any errors and money must be refunded. Patterns of errors constitute fraud, regardless of intent.”
Dr. Lowes took a deep breath and held it for a brief moment before exhaling. “But that’s all the easy part. I want to talk to you about this particular facility we are going to place you in. It’s not really like a nursing home. You’ll be able to count the actual number of elderly patients on your fingers. It’s more like a psychiatric hospital.
“You’ll be working with many patients in their forties and fifties, maybe even younger. Schizophrenics, those with bipolar, and such. You will, of course, do your best to care for your residents, but you’ll be there for two major reasons. To reduce psychotropic medications and reduce psychiatric hospitalizations.”
“I get it,” said Tara. “By seeing them on a regular basis, I might keep them calm enough to reduce meds and prevent hospitalizations.”
Dr. Lowes nodded. “You bet. Thus, saving the facility money. There’s another matter…”
Tara waited expectantly.
“The administrator is an interesting character. She likes to think that she runs a tight ship. She’ll, of course, want to meet you and interview you herself before she’ll grant you privileges in her facility.”
Tara nodded. “Understandable.”
Dr. Loews shook his head. “Truthfully, she’s a bit of a nut. Very OCD, very concrete. It’s her way or the highway, and she’s clashed with a few of our male psychologists. I’m hoping that, as a female, you’ll be able to get along with her better.”
Tara knew this for a fact not to be true. She knew the type, the career superwoman who wore pantsuits and stomped around ramming her authority down everyone’s throats because it’s the only way she thinks she’ll be taken seriously. Very insecure and overcompensates with exhibitions of force, often at the expense of what’s professional or correct.
She smiled. “I’m familiar with the type. I’ll do my best.”
Dr. Lowes paused to evaluate her response, weighing whether or not Tara truly knew what she was in for or just offering up the yearbook answer.
He looked down at her crisp, newly printed resume on the table in front of him. “Well, it looks like everything is in order. I’d like to offer you a contract if you still want the position.”
He was hedging the offer quite a bit, which raised some alarms in Tara’s mind, but she had no other option. The pay was significantly better than her pay at the school, and her hours were much better. Oh, and she had been excessed in June. Laid off. Axed.
“Yes, I’d like to sign.”
Dr. Lowes smiled and passed a contract over to her.
Tara had seen it prior, so she only scanned it for any last minute changes slipped in at the eleventh hour, but there were none. It was all on the up-and-up.
She signed on the long line and passed the contract back across the table to him.
Dr. Lowes initialed the document as a witness. “I’ll have a copy of the countersigned contract for you tomorrow. Well, welcome to Oceanside Medical Group.” He reached across the table and offered his hand.
Tara shook it.
It was done.
Dr. Lowes passed over some applications to join Medicare and Medicaid. “Fill these out today and have them notarized. You can bring me them tomorrow. Don’t forget to include your NPI number.”
He gathered up all of the paperwork into a brand new manila folder. “You’ll start right away. Tomorrow, we’ll meet here at eight-thirty, and I’ll take you over to the facility in Stonewall, on Mariner Avenue. You’ll meet the administrator. Present as well as you did with me and I think you’ll be okay.”
“We’ll also need copies of your degrees and licenses for our records.”
Dr. Lowes stood, and Tara followed suit.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said.
She nodded, and he excused himself from the room.
Tara pulled out her cell as she walked to the car in the August heat and dialed her husband. She felt her outfit cling wet to her body.
“Hi, honey. How’d it go?”
“Well, I’m officially a member of the Oceanside Medical Group.”
“That’s great. See, I told you everything would work out.”
“I should be home in about fifteen minutes.”
“Tyrell and I are unpacking, but I’ll start dinner in a few.”
“Sounds good, sweetie. See you guys soon.”
She hung up the phone and slipped it back into her pocket. She pressed the unlock button on her keychain and slipped into her car. She turned the ignition, cranked up the air conditioning, put on the radio, and began her commute home.
Within ten minutes she was pulling into Smuggler’s Bay. Tara had to remind herself that once school started, the traffic wouldn’t be so light. Nevertheless, it was an easy commute to the Oceanside Medical Group. The nursing facility was located one town over and would be even easier to get to.
As she pulled down the streets of the small seaside town, she saw boys in shorts and tank tops skateboarding in municipal parking lots, teenage girls walking in small groups in bikinis, looking down at their phones, their thumbs texting like mad.
Seagulls stood atop streetlights laughing at passersby, on the lookout for dropped fired dough or French fries. Tara drove past the Smuggler’s Warf waterpark—complete with lazy river, and go-kart track.
She passed countless family-run motels, rental bungalows, liquor shops, a convenience store, and a pirate-themed bar named, ‘The Jolly Roger.’ She turned down Captain’s Avenue and pulled in front of the bungalow she and her family had moved into only a few days prior. She parked the car by a sign designating the spot for the ‘Resident of 14 Captain’s Avenue Only,’ and got out.
She immediately began to sweat as she hit the soupy summer air, and she wondered when the heat wave was finally going to break.
She let herself into their long, narrow bungalow and was immediately pounced upon by her five-year-old son, Tyrell.
Tara hugged her son, and he grimaced at the dampness of her clothes. “Hey, sweetie. Are you helping Daddy unpack?”
Tyrell squirmed until she put him down. He rewarded her with an answer. “I was, but Daddy’s cooking now.”
“Oh, I see,” she said as she put her things down on the small table in the living room. Some children’s cartoon was blaring on the television.
Tara stepped into the kitchen where her husband, Marcus, stirred whole wheat pasta in a pot. He leaned over and kissed her sweetly on the lips. “Hi, hon.”
Tyrell ran into the kitchen and latched onto Tara’s leg like a barnacle on a pier’s piling.
“Well, it’s a done deal. Looks like this is home for a while,” she said.
Tyrell let go and jumped up and down. “Yay!”
Marcus took the wooden spoon off the spoon-holder and stirred the tomato sauce. “We can finish unpacking after dinner.”
Tara shook her head. “Nah. Let’s hit the boardwalk after dinner. It should be cooler then, and I know this little man has been waiting patiently to have some fun.”
“Are you sure?” Marcus asked.
Tara waved her hand dismissively. “We’re almost done unpacking anyway. The summer’s flying by. We should enjoy this place while it’s peak season.”
Tara kind of liked the idea of living in a Jersey Shore town. Smuggler’s Bay was the type of town that families flocked to every summer from New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Delaware to hit the beach, walk the boardwalk, and ride the rides.
It was the perfect place for Tyrell.
Marcus stabbed a piece of penne from the pot with a fork and blew on it. Then he took a bite. “A few more minutes.”
“You didn’t have to cook in this heat,” said Tara, peeling off her damp suit jacket.
“Tyrell and I wanted to make a special dinner for you, to celebrate the good news.”
“I helped open the jar of sauce, and Daddy let me pour it into the pot,” said Tyrell.
?” Tara picked up the little squirt. “Well, thank you, gentlemen.”
“We’re both really proud of you,” said Marcus.
Tara smiled, and she handed Marcus the pasta strainer. This job was a relief. She would make sure that she presented well at the facility tomorrow, even if the administrator was a super bitch.
Everything was going to be okay.
Old Mike Brunello watched as the children lined up in front of the gate, tickets in hand, squirming with excitement to ride the hundred-year-old carousel. A retired school teacher from Canarsie, Brooklyn, he lived for the children. He loved their wide smiles and their squeals of delight as their horses bobbed up and down to the calliope music.
Having run the Blackbeard’s Pier Carousel for about a decade, he got to see the same families over the years. He came to know them, some of them on an acquaintance basis, some a little better.
He relished watching the children grow. He saw some grow from toddlers to children, some from children to teenagers, and some of the teens came back with young families of their own.
“Okay, who wants to ride the horses?” he asked the fidgety throng of waiting children. They responded with a gleeful cacophony of shouts, cheers, and raised hands.
Mike smiled warmly at the parents as he opened the small metal gate. Children stampeded in, thrusting little blue tickets into his hand and racing to find the horse they picked out for themselves while waiting on line.
“Do I have to buy a ticket too?” asked a young mother holding a two-year-old in her arms.
“No. Go right ahead.”
The mother got on the carousel and strapped her daughter in. She looked to Mike, who nodded his assent, and she mounted the horse next to her daughter’s. “Now hold on tight to the poll, honey,” she instructed.
Blackbeard’s Pier policy was that parents of children aged three or over had to purchase their own tickets to ride, but ol’ Mike never enforced it. Management didn’t care much about it because they knew families came to see ol’ Mike almost as much as the carousel itself. Like the ride, Mike had become a Smuggler’s Bay institution.
After walking once around to make sure children wore their safety straps and held onto their poles, he came back to his control box and pressed the green button. The horses slowly sprung to life as the carousel began to turn, gradually picking up speed.
As was custom, waiting parents hung out by Mike, engaging him in small talk as they waved to their children passing by again and again.
“So, how’ve ya been, Mike?”
“Good. Can’t complain.”
“When do ya think this heat wave’s gonna break?’
Mike wiped his brow at the suggestion. “Supposed to break this weekend. At least that’s what the weatherman said, but what does he know? Nice to have a job where you can be wrong all the time.”
“Been back to Brooklyn at all?”
“This past Spring. Went to visit Mary’s grave. Put some flowers on it.”
Living in Canarsie, ol’ Mike was no stranger to the seaside setting. He had fond memories of fishing there with his buddies over a few beers after work. It was much simpler than Smuggler’s Bay. There weren’t any carny games or prizes or carnival rides, but it was nice.