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Kevin J. Anderson has published 140 books, 56 of which have been national or international bestsellers. In 2012 he launched his humorous horror series of mysteries featuring Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I., who has starred in five novels and numerous short stories, even a graphic novel. Anderson has written numerous novels in the Star Wars, X-Files, Dune, and DC Comics universes, as well as unique steampunk fantasy novels Clockwork Angels and Clockwork Lives, written with legendary rock drummer Neil Peart, based on the concept album by the band Rush. His original works include the Saga of Seven Suns series, the Terra Incognita fantasy trilogy, and the Saga of Shadows trilogy. He has edited numerous anthologies, written comics and games, and the lyrics to two rock CDs. Anderson and his wife Rebecca Moesta are the publishers of WordFire Press.

Selected Stories - Horror and Dark Fantasy by Kevin J. Anderson

Though best known for his science fiction novels, #1 bestseller Kevin J. Anderson has also written dozens of darker stories, ranging from eerie suspense, to surprise shockers, to monster encounters, to atmospheric Bradbury-esque tales, from flash fiction to novellas.

In these 29 stories, you will see the nightmarish history of a creepy Wisconsin small town, rock stars raised from the dead, vampires, werewolves, zombies, murderers and sorcerers … and the heroes who battle them.

Includes stories cowritten with Grammy Award-winning singer Janis Ian, and with Neil Peart from legendary rock band Rush.

CURATOR'S NOTE

Although he's best known for his science fiction novels, #1 New York Times bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson has a dark side. A delightfully creepy dark side. And he's given us advanced access to these 29 tales (including stories co-written with Grammy Award-winning singer Janis Ian and Rush's Neil Peart) just for this StoryBundle. – Allyson Longueira

 
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

Bringing the Family

Both coffins shifted as the wagon wheels hit a rut in the dirt road. Mr. Deakin, sitting beside his silent passenger, Clancy Tucker, clucked to the horses and steered them to the left.

The rhythmic creak of the wagon and the buzz of flies around the coffins were the only sounds in the muggy air. Over the past three days Mr. Deakin and Clancy had already said everything relative strangers could say to each other.

Clancy rocked back and forth to counteract the motion of the wagon. A sprawling expanse of prairie surrounded them, mile after mile of green grassland broken only by the ribbonlike track heading north. Clancy looked up at the early afternoon sun. "Time to stop."

Mr. Deakin groaned. "We got hours of daylight left."

Clancy made his lips thin and white. "We gotta be sure we get those graves dug by dark."

"Do you realize how stupid this is, Clancy? Night after night—"

"A promise is a promise." Clancy pointed to a patch of thin grass next to a few drying puddles from the last thunderstorm. "Looks like a good place over there."

With only a grunt for an answer, Mr. Deakin pulled the horses to the side and brought them to a stop. The rotten smell settled around them. Clancy Tucker had insisted on making this journey in the heat and humidity of summer; in winter and spring, he said, the ground was frozen too hard to keep reburying his Ma and Dad along the way.

Clancy grabbed a pickax from the wagon bed and sauntered over to the flat spot. By now they had this ritual down to a science. Mr. Deakin said nothing as he unhitched the horses, hobbled them, and began to rub them down. These horses were the only asset he had left, and he insisted on tending them before helping Clancy on his fool's errand.

Clancy swung the pickax, chopping the woven grassroots. His bright, bulging eyes looked as if someone with big hands had squeezed him too tightly at the middle. He slipped one suspender off his shoulder, and a dark, damp shadow of perspiration seeped from his underarms.

As he worked, Clancy hummed an endless hymn that Mr. Deakin recognized as "Bringing in the Sheaves." The chorus went around and around without ever finding its way to the last verse. Over the hours, between the humming and the stench from the unearthed coffins, Mr. Deakin wanted to shove Clancy's head under one of the wheels.

When he finished with the horses, he pulled a shovel from between the two coffins and went over to help Clancy. To make the daily task more difficult, Clancy insisted on digging two separate graves, one for his Ma and one for his Dad, rather than a single large pit for both coffins.

They worked for more than an hour in the suffocating heat of afternoon, surrounded by flies and the sweat on their own bodies. Mr. Deakin had run out of snuff on the first day, and his little pocket jar held only a smear or two of the camphor ointment he kept for sore muscles, which he also used to burn the putrid smell from his nostrils.

Mr. Deakin's body ached, his hands felt flayed with blisters, and he did his best to shut off all thought. He would work like one of those escaped slaves from down south, forced to labor all day long in the cotton fields. Clancy Tucker's family had kept a freed slave to tend their home, and she had spooked Clancy badly, filling his head with strange ideas. Or maybe Clancy just had strange ideas all by himself.

A month before, Mr. Deakin would never have imagined himself stooping to such crazy tasks as digging up coffins and burying them night after night on a slow journey to Wisconsin. But an Illinois tornado had flattened his house, knocked down the barn, and left him with nothing.

Standing in the aftermath of that storm, under a sky that had cleared to a mocking blue, Mr. Deakin had wanted to shake his fist at the clouds and shout, but he only hung his head in silent despair. He had worked his whole life to compile meager possessions on a homestead and some rented cropland. It would be months before his harvest came in, and he had no way to pay the rent in the meantime; the tornado had crushed his harvesting equipment, smashed his barn. After the storm, only two horses had stood surrounded by the wreckage of their small corral, bewildered and as shocked by the disaster as Mr. Deakin.

His life ruined, Mr. Deakin had had no choice but to say yes when Clancy Tucker had made his proposition.…

"Make it six feet deep now!" Clancy said, throwing wet earth over his shoulder onto a mound beside the grave. Fat earthworms wriggled in the clods, trying to grope their way back to darkness. Mr. Deakin felt his muscles aching as he stomped on the shovel with his boot and hefted up another load of dirt. "What difference does it make if they're six feet under or five and a half?" he muttered.

Beside him, standing waist-deep in the companion grave, Clancy looked at him strangely, as if the answer were obvious. The floppy brim of his hat cast a shadow across his face. "Why, because anything less than six feet, and they could dig their way back up by morning!"

Mr. Deakin felt his skin crawl and turned back to his work. Clancy Tucker either had a sick sense of humor, or just a sick mind.…

Only a day after the tornado had struck, when things seemed bleakest, Mr. Deakin stood alone in the ruins of his homestead. He watched Clancy Tucker walk toward him across the puddle-dotted field. "Good morning, Mr. Deakin," he had said.

"Morning," Mr. Deakin said, leaving the "good" off.

"You know my brother Jerome recently founded a town up in Wisconsin—Tucker's Grove. Can I hire you to help me bring the family up there? You look like you could use a lucky break right about now."

"How much is it worth?" Mr. Deakin asked.

Clancy folded his hands together. "I can offer you this. If you'd give us a ride on your wagon up to Wisconsin, my brother will give you your very own farm, a homestead as big as this one. And it'll be yours, not rented. Lots of land to be had up there. In the meantime, we can loan you enough hard currency to take care of your business here." Clancy held out a handful of silver coins. "We know you need the help."

Mr. Deakin could hardly believe what he heard. The Tuckers had no surviving family—Clancy and his broad-chested brother Jerome were the only sons. Who else would they be taking along?

Clancy nodded again. "It would be the Christian thing to do, Mr. Deakin. Neighbor helping neighbor."

So he had agreed to the deal. Not until they were ready to set out did he learn that Clancy wanted to haul the exhumed coffins of his recently deceased mother and father. By the time Mr. Deakin found out, Clancy had already paid some of Mr. Deakin's most important debts, binding him to his word.…

It was deep twilight by the time they had two graves dug and both coffins lowered into the ground with thick hemp ropes. They finished packing down the mounds of earth, leaving the rope ends aboveground for easy lifting the next morning. Mr. Deakin built a small fire to make coffee and warm their supper.

He felt stiff and sore as he bedded down for the night, taking a blanket from the wagon bed. Now that the cool night air smelled clean around him, with no corpse odor hanging about, he wished he had saved some of that camphor for his aching muscles.

Clancy Tucker lay across the fresh earth of the two graves. Mr. Deakin grabbed another blanket and tossed it toward him, but the other man did not look up. Clancy placed his ear against the ground, as if listening for sounds of something stirring below.

#

One of the townspeople had used a heated iron spike to burn letters on a plank. WELCOME TO COMPROMISE, ILLINOIS. The population tally had been scratched out and rewritten several times, but it looked as if folk no longer kept track. The townspeople watched them approach down the dirt path.

The flat blandness of unending grassland and the corduroy of cornfields swept out to where the land met the sky. On the horizon, gray clouds began building into thunderheads.

"Don't see no church here," Clancy said, "not one with a steeple anyway."

"Town's too small probably," Mr. Deakin answered.

Clancy set his mouth. "Tucker's Grove might be small, but the very first thing Jerome's building will be his church."

Mr. Deakin saw a building attached to the side of the general store and realized that this was probably a gathering place and a saloon. Some townspeople wandered out to watch their arrival, lounging against the boardwalk rails. A gaunt man with bushy eyebrows and thinning steel-gray hair stepped out from the general store like an official emissary.

But when the storekeeper saw the coffins in back of the wagon, he wrinkled his nose. The others covered their noses and moved upwind. Without a word of greeting, the storekeeper wiped his stained white apron and said, "Who's in the coffins?"

"My beloved parents," Clancy said.

"Sorry to hear that," the storekeeper said. "Not common to see someone hauling bodies cross-country in the summer heat. I reckon the first thing you'll want is some salt to fill them boxes. It'll cut down the rot."

Mr. Deakin felt his mouth go dry. He didn't want to say that they had little to pay for such an extravagant quantity of salt. But Clancy interrupted.

"Actually," he looked at the other townspeople, "we'd prefer a place to bury these coffins for the night. If you have a graveyard, perhaps? I'm sure after our long journey"—he patted the dirt-stained tops of the coffins—"they would prefer a peaceful night's rest. The ground is hallowed, ain't it?"

The storekeeper scowled. "We got a graveyard over by the stand of trees there, but no church yet. A Presbyterian circuit rider comes along every week or so, not necessarily on Sundays. He's due back anytime now, if you'd like to wait and hold some kind of service."

Mr. Deakin didn't know what to say. The entire situation seemed unreal. He tried to cut off his companion's crazy talk, but Clancy Tucker wouldn't be interrupted.

"Presbyterian? I'm a good Methodist, and my parents were good Methodists. My brother Jerome is even a Methodist minister, self-ordained."

"Clancy—" Mr. Deakin began.

Clancy sighed. "Well, it's only for the night, after all." He looked at Mr. Deakin and lowered his voice. "Hallowed ground. They won't try to come back up, so we don't need to dig so deep."

The storekeeper put his hands behind his apron. "Digging up graves after you planted the coffins? If you want to bury them in our graveyard, that's your business. But we won't be wanting you to disturb what's been reverently put to rest."

Mr. Deakin refrained from pointing out that these particular coffins had been buried and dug up a number of times already.

"You wouldn't be wanting me to break a sacred oath either, would you?" Clancy turned his bulging eyes toward the man; he didn't blink for a long time. "I swore to my parents, on their deathbeds, that I would bring them with me when I moved to Wisconsin. And I'm not leaving them here after all this way."

Seemingly from out of nowhere, Clancy produced a coin and tossed it to the storekeeper, who refused to come closer to the wagons because of the stench. "Are you trying to buy my agreement?" the storekeeper asked.

"No. It's for the horses. We'll need some oats."

#

Though the graveyard of Compromise was small, many wooden crosses protruded like scarecrows. The townspeople did not offer to help Mr. Deakin and Clancy dig, but a few of them watched.

Mr. Deakin pulled the wagon to an empty spot, careful not to let the horses tread on the other graves. As the two of them fell to work with their shovels, Clancy kept looking at the other grave markers. He jutted his stubbled chin toward a row of crosses, marking the graves of an entire family that had died from diphtheria, according to the scrawled words.

"My parents died from scarlet fever," Clancy said. "Jerome caught it first, and he was so sick we thought he'd never get up again. He kept rolling around, sweating, raving. He wouldn't let our Negro, Maggie, go near him. When the fever broke, his eyes had a whole different sparkle to them, and he talked about how God had showed him a vision of our promised land. Jerome knew he was supposed to found a town in Wisconsin.

"He kept talking about it until we got fired up by his enthusiasm. He wanted to pack up everything we had and strike off, but then Ma and Dad caught the fever themselves, probably from tending Jerome so close."

Mr. Deakin pressed his lips together and kept digging in the soft earth. He didn't want to wallow in his own loss, and he didn't want to wallow in Clancy Tucker's either.

"When they were both sweating with fever, they claimed to share Jerome's vision. They were terrified that Jerome and I would leave them behind. So, I promised we would bring them along, no matter what. Oh, they wanted to come so bad. Maggie heard them, and she said she could help."

Clancy didn't even pause for breath as he continued. "I could see how bothered Jerome was, because he wanted to leave right away. Our parents were getting worse and worse. They certainly couldn't stand a wagon ride, and it didn't look like they had much time left.

"One day, after Jerome had been sitting with them for a long time, he came out of their room. His face was frightful with so much grief. He said that their souls had flown off to Heaven." Clancy's eyes glowed.

"He left the day afterward, going alone to scout things out, while I took care of details until I could follow, bringing the family. Jerome is waiting for us there now."

Clancy looked up. He had a smear of mud along one cheek. His eyes looked as if they wanted to spill over with tears, but they didn't dare. "So, you see why it's so important to me. Ma and Dad have to be there with us. They have their part to play, even if it's just to be the first two in our graveyard."

Mr. Deakin said nothing; Clancy didn't seem to want him to.

#

The sun began to rise in a pool of molten orange. Mr. Deakin dutifully went back to Clancy Tucker, who had slept up against a wagon wheel. Mr. Deakin's head throbbed, but he had not gotten himself so drunk in the saloon that he forgot his obligations, bizarre though they might be.

He and Clancy set to work on the dewy grass with their shovels, digging out the loosened earth they had piled into graves only the night before.

Mr. Deakin looked toward town, sensing rather than hearing the group of people moving toward them. Clancy didn't notice, but Mr. Deakin halted, propped the shovel into the dirt where it rested against the coffin lid. Clancy unearthed the top of the second coffin, and then stopped as the group approached. He went over to stand by the wagon.

The people carried sticks and farm implements, marching along with their faces screwed up and squinting as they stared into the rising sun. They swaggered as if they had just been talked into a fit of righteous anger.

At the front of the group strode a tall man dressed in a black frock coat and a stiff-brimmed black hat. Mr. Deakin realized that this must be the Presbyterian circuit rider, just in time to stir up trouble.

"We come to take action against two blasphemers!" the circuit rider said.

"Amen!" the people answered.

The preacher had a deep-throated voice, as if every word he uttered was too heavy with import to be spoken in a normal voice. He stepped close, and the sunlight shone full on his face. His weathered features were stretched over a frame of bone, as if he had seen too many cycles of abundance and famine.

The bushy-browed storekeeper stood beside him. "We ain't letting you dig up graves in our town."

"Grave robbers!" the circuit rider spat. "How dare you disturb those buried here? You'll roast in Hell."

"Amen!" the chorus said again.

Mr. Deakin made no move with his shovel, looking at the group and feeling cold. He had already lost everything he had, and he didn't care about Clancy Tucker's craziness—not enough to get lynched for it.

Clancy stood beside the wagon, holding Mr. Deakin's shotgun in his hands and pointing it toward the mob. "This here gun is loaded with bird shot. It's bound to hit most everybody with flying lead pellets. Might even kill someone. Whoever wants to keep me from my own parents, just take a step forward. I've got my finger right on the trigger." He paused for just a moment. "Mr. Deakin, would you kindly finish the last bit of digging?"

Mr. Deakin took the shovel and went to work, moving slowly, and watched Clancy Tucker's bulging eyes. Sweat streamed down Clancy's forehead, and his hands shook as he pointed the shotgun.

"I'm done, Clancy," Mr. Deakin said, just loud enough for the other man to hear him.

Clancy tilted the shotgun up and discharged the first barrel with a sound like a cannon. Morning birds in the outlying fields burst into the air, squawking. Clancy lowered the gun toward the mob again. "Git!"

The circuit rider looked as if he wanted to bluster some more, but the townspeople of Compromise turned to run. Not wanting to be left behind, the circuit rider turned around, his black frock coat flapping. His hat flew off as he ran, drifted in the air, then fell to the muck.

#

Clancy Tucker shivered on the seat of the wagon, pulling a blanket around himself. He had cradled the empty shotgun for a long time as Mr. Deakin led the wagon around the town of Compromise, bumping over rough fields.

"I would've shot him," Clancy said. His teeth chattered together. "I really meant it. I was going to kill them! 'Thou shalt not kill!' I've never had thoughts like that before!"

Mr. Deakin made Clancy take a nap for a few hours, but the other man seemed just as disturbed after he awoke. "How am I going to live with this? I meant to kill another man! I had the gun in my hand. If I had tilted the barrel down just a bit I could have popped that circuit rider's head like a muskmelon."

"It was only bird shot, Clancy," Mr. Deakin said, but Clancy didn't hear.

As the horses followed the dirt path, Mr. Deakin reached behind to the bed of the wagon where they kept their supplies. He rummaged under the tarpaulin and pulled out a two-gallon jug of whiskey. "Here, drink some of this. It'll smooth out your nerves."

Clancy looked at him, wide-eyed, but Mr. Deakin kept his face free of any expression. "I traded my little silver mirror for it last night in the saloon. You could use some right now, Clancy. I've never seen anybody this bad."

Clancy pulled out the cork and took a deep whiff of the contents. Startled, stinging tears came to his eyes. "I won't, Mr. Deakin! It says right in Leviticus, 'Do not drink wine nor strong drink.'"

"Oh, don't go giving me that," Mr. Deakin said, pursing his lips. "Isn't there another verse that says to give wine to those with heavy hearts so they remember their misery no more?"

Clancy blinked, as if he had never considered the idea. "That's in Proverbs, I think."

"Well, you look like you could forget some of your misery."

Clancy took out a metal cup and, with tense movements as if someone were about to catch him at what he was doing, he poured half a cupful of the brown liquid. He screwed up his face and looked down into the cup. Mr. Deakin watched him, knowing that Clancy's lips had probably never been sullied by so much as a curse word, not to mention whiskey.

As if realizing that he had reached his point of greatest courage, Clancy lifted the cup and gulped from it. His eyes seemed to pop even farther from his head, and he bit back a loud cough. Before he could recover his voice to gasp, Mr. Deakin, hiding a smile, spoke from the corner of his mouth. "My gosh, Clancy, just pretend you're drinking hot coffee! Sip it."

Looking alarmed but determined, Clancy brought the cup back to his lips, then squeezed his eyes shut and took a smaller sip. He didn't speak again, and Mr. Deakin ignored him. Morning shadows stretched out to the left as the wagon headed north toward Wisconsin.

Mr. Deakin made no comment when Clancy refilled the metal cup and settled back down to a regular routine of long, slow sips.

By noon the sky had begun to thicken up with thunderheads, and the air held the muggy, oppressive scent of a lumbering storm. The flies went away, but mosquitoes came out. The coffins in back of the wagon stank worse than ever.

Clancy hummed "Bringing in the Sheaves" over and over, growing louder with each verse. He turned to look at the coffins in the back of the wagon, and giggled. He spoke for the first time in hours. "Can you keep a secret, Mr. Deakin?"

Mr. Deakin wasn't sure he wanted to and avoided answering.

"I don't think I know your Christian name, Mr. Deakin."

"How do you know I even have one?" he muttered. He had lived alone and made few friends in Illinois, working too hard to socialize much. The neighbors and townsfolk called him Mr. Deakin, and it had been a long time since he'd heard anyone refer to him as anything else. Clancy found that very funny.

"Yes, I can keep a secret," Mr. Deakin finally said.

"Promise?"

"Promise."

Clancy dropped his voice to a stage whisper. "Jerome lied!" He paused, as if this revelation were horrifying enough.

"And when did he do that?" Mr. Deakin asked, not really interested.

"When he came out of my parents' room and said that their souls had flown off to Heaven—that wasn't true at all. And he knew it! When he went into that room, after Ma and Dad were sick for so long, after he wanted to go found the new town so bad, Jerome smothered them both with their pillows!"

Mr. Deakin intentionally kept his gaze pointed straight ahead. "Clancy, you've had too much of that whiskey."

"He did Dad first, who still had some strength to struggle. But Ma didn't fight. She just laid back and closed her eyes. She knew we had promised to take them both to Tucker's Grove, and she knew we would keep our word. You always have to keep your word.

"But when Jerome said their souls had flown off to Heaven, well, that just wasn't true—because by smothering them with the pillow, he trapped their souls inside!"

Clancy opened his eyes. Mr. Deakin saw bloodshot lines around the irises. "What makes you say that, Clancy?" Mr. Deakin asked. He wasn't sure if he could believe any of this.

"Maggie said so." Clancy stared off into the gathering storm. "Right after they died, our Negro, Maggie, sacrificed one of our chickens, danced around mumbling spells. Jerome and I came back from the coffin makers and found her inside by the bodies. He tried to whack her on the head with a shovel, then he chased her out of our house and said he'd burn her as a witch if she ever came back."

"And so Jerome left while you packed everything up and made ready to move?" Mr. Deakin asked. He had no idea what to make of killing chickens and chanting spells.

"I'm the only one who didn't see the vision. But Ma and Dad wanted to come so bad. Maggie said she was just trying to help, and it worked. That's why we have to keep burying the coffins—so the bodies stay down!" Clancy glanced at Mr. Deakin, expectant, but then his own expression changed. With a comical look of astonishment at himself, he covered his mouth with one hand, still grimy from digging out the graves at dawn.

"I promised Jerome I wouldn't tell anybody, and now I broke my promise. Something bad's bound to happen for sure now!" He closed his eyes and began to groan in the back of his throat.

In exasperation, Mr. Deakin reached over and yanked on the floppy brim of Clancy's hat, pulling it over his face. "Clancy, you just take another nap. Get some rest." He lowered his voice and mumbled under his breath, "And give me some peace, too."

#

Clancy slept most of the afternoon, lying in an awkward position against the backboard. Mr. Deakin urged the horses onward, racing the oncoming storm. He hadn't seen another town since Compromise, and the wild prairie sprawled as far as he could see, dotted with clumps of trees. The wagon track was only a faint impression, showing the way to go. A damp breeze licked across Mr. Deakin's face.

The first droplets of water sprinkled his cheeks, and Mr. Deakin pulled his own hat tight onto his head. As the storm picked up, the breeze and the raindrops made a rushing sound in the grasses.

Clancy grunted and woke up. He looked disoriented, saw the darkened sky, and sat up sharply. "What time is it? How long did I sleep?" He whirled to look at the coffins in the back. The patter of raindrops sounded like drumbeats against the wood.

Mr. Deakin knew what Clancy was going to say but maintained a nonchalant expression. "Hard to tell what time it is with these clouds and the storm. Probably late afternoon …" He looked at Clancy. "Sunset maybe." A boom of thunder made a drawn-out, tearing sound across the sky.

"You've got to stop! We have to bury the—"

"Clancy, we'll never get them dug in time, and I'm not going to be shoveling a grave in the middle of a storm. Just cover them up with the tarp and they'll be all right."

Clancy turned to him with an expression filled with outrage and alarm. Before he could say anything, a thump came from the back of the wagon. Mr. Deakin looked around, wondering if he had rolled over a boulder on the path, but then the thump came again.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw one of the coffins move aside just a little.

"Oh, no!" Clancy wailed. "I told you!"

An echoing thump came from the second coffin. Another burst of thunder rolled across the sky, and the horses picked up their pace, frightened by the wind and the storm.

Clancy leaned into the back of the wagon. He took a mallet from the pack of tools and, just as the first coffin bounced again, Clancy whacked the edge of the lid, striking the coffin nails to keep the top closed. The rusted and mud-specked nailheads gleamed bright with scraped metal.

Mr. Deakin had his mouth half-open, but he couldn't think of anything to say. He kept trying to convince himself that this was some kind of joke Clancy was playing, or perhaps even the townspeople of Compromise.

Just as he turned, the first coffin lid lurched, despite Clancy's hammering. The pine boards split, and the lid bent up just enough that a gnarled gray hand pushed its way out. Wet and rotting skin scraped off the edge of the wood as the claw-fingers scrabbled to find purchase and push the lid open farther. Tendons stuck out along yellowed bones. A burst of stench wafted out, and Mr. Deakin gagged but could not tear his eyes away.

The second coffin lid cracked open. He thought he saw a shadow moving inside it.

Clancy leaped into the back of the wagon and straddled one of the coffins. He banged again with the mallet, trying to keep the lid closed; but he hesitated, worried about injuring the hands and fingers groping through the cracks. "Help me, Mr. Deakin!"

A flash of lightning split across the darkness. Rain poured down, and the horses began to run. Mr. Deakin let the reins drop onto the seat and swung over the backboard into the wagon bed.

Clancy knelt beside his mother's coffin. "Please stay put! Just stay put! I'll get you there," he was saying, but his words were lost in the wind and the thunder and the rumble of wagon wheels.

One of the pine boards snapped on the father's coffin. An arm, clothed in the mildewed black of a Sunday suit, thrust out. The fingers had long, curved nails.

"Don't!" Clancy said.

Mr. Deakin was much bigger than Clancy. In the back of the wagon he planted his feet flat against the side of the first coffin. He pushed with his legs.

The single rotting arm flailed and tried to grab at his boot, but Mr. Deakin shoved. He closed his eyes and lay his head backward—and the coffin slid off the wagon bed, tottering for an instant. As the horses continued to gallop over the bumpy path, the coffin tilted over the edge onto the track.

"No!" Clancy screamed and grabbed at him, but Mr. Deakin slapped him away. He pushed the second coffin, a lighter one this time. The lid on this coffin began to give way as well. Thin fingers crept out.

Clancy yanked at Mr. Deakin's jacket, clawing at the throat and cutting off his air, but Mr. Deakin gave a last push to knock the second coffin over the edge.

"We've got to turn around!" Clancy cried.

The second coffin crashed to the ground, tilted over, and the wooden sides splintered. Just then a sheet of lightning illuminated the sky from horizon to horizon, like an enormous concussion of flash powder used by a daguerreotype photographer.

In that instant, Mr. Deakin saw the thin, twisted body rising from the shards of the broken coffin. Lumbering behind, already free of the first coffin, stood a taller corpse, shambling toward his wife. Then all fell black again as the lightning faded.

Mr. Deakin wanted to collapse and squeeze his eyes shut, but the horses continued to gallop wildly. He scrambled back to the seat and snatched up the reins.

"This weather is going to ruin them!" Clancy moaned. "You have to go back, Mr. Deakin!"

Mr. Deakin knew full well that he was abandoning a farm of his own in Tucker's Grove, but the consequences of breaking his agreement with Clancy seemed more sane to him than staying here any longer. He snapped the reins and shouted at the horses for greater speed.

Lightning sent him another picture of the two scarecrow corpses—but they had their backs to the wagon. Walking side by side, Clancy Tucker's dead parents struck off in the other direction. Back the way they had come.

With a sudden, resigned look on his face, Clancy Tucker swung both of his legs over the side of the wagon.

"Clancy, wait!" Mr. Deakin shouted. "They're going the other way! They don't want to come after all, can't you see?"

But Clancy's voice remained determined. "It doesn't matter. I've got to take them anyway." He ducked his head down and made ready to jump. "A promise is a promise," he said.

"Sometimes breaking a promise is better than keeping it," Mr. Deakin shouted.

But Clancy let go of the wagon, tucking and rolling onto the wet grass. He clambered to his feet and ran back toward where he had last seen his parents.

Mr. Deakin did not look back, but kept the horses running into the night.

As he listened to the majestic storm overhead, as he felt the wet, fresh air with each breath he took, Mr. Deakin realized that he still had more, much more, that he did not want to lose.

Another Tucker's Grove story, also dating back to the founding of the town. One theme you will see in many of these tales is the theme of religious fanaticism, the danger and intolerance in those oh-so-sweet little Protestant churches with white siding, tall steeple, and black roof that grace every Midwestern town. When Garrison Keillor wrote about them in his chronicles of Lake Wobegon, he found irony and humor.

I found something much darker.