The party was a quiet affair, just her son, his new fiancee, her parents, and a few friends from town. They’d all parked along the double-rutted lane before entering the yard of her home – one of the last to be able to claim to be truly rural in New York state – and were now seated in the plastic white lawn-chairs she’d scattered around the fire pit.
Her knee had ached as she mounted the trio of steps that led to her patio, and pushed aside the sliding screen door she used to enter the kitchen. She’d been seeking the double stack of red plastic cups that she’d picked up for the occasion, in preparation for dispensing the rummy punch Maggie had constructed.
Turning back to the party, with cups in hand, she had paused at the exit, watching Maggie The Server stiffly trundling around the group with the cheese and cracker plate.
It was while tearing open the transparent wrapper that Ruby spotted the intruder moving into the half-circle of chatting well-wishers.
“No,” she said, “no, damn you, no.”
She’d heard the story only two nights before – a former lover of her son’s chosen, unrelenting in his refusal to accept her spurning. The girl had told the tale with tears in her eyes.
The newcomer ratcheted the shotgun in his hands, and all talk ceased.
Dropping the cups, the aging woman sprinted to her living room.
Outside the home, the gate-crasher made his intentions clear. Without breaking for explanation, he leveled his weapon at Mr. McReardon and fired. The proud father’s lawn chair toppled backwards, and the dying man’s brown trouser legs twitched briefly before halting all movement.
“Angie,” said the gunman, turning on the freshly engaged woman. “This is all your -”
Barefoot, Ruby made no effort to check her momentum as she plunged through the screen door.
For a moment she almost seemed to shift in time: There was no more bad knee, there was no sleeping in on high thread-count sheets, there was no escape – there was only Bethany, snatched down from her place on the mantle, and a threat – always a threat – with no answer but the blade.
Somewhere, she thought she might have heard the old General howl.
It was only as the mad woman cleared the end of the deck in a single bound, and came pounding the turf in his direction, that the intruder managed to convince himself of the reality of the situation.
He pulled the trigger, finally, sending burning buckshot into her ribcage, but she briefly shrugged off the effect.
Then she did what she’d always done, and cleaved his skull.
Ruby’s last living sight was of the wind ruffling the elms she’d planted thirty-five years earlier.
* * *
She woke with Bethany in her hands.
There was a thin faced woman leaning over her, whose eyes moved continuously between her own and the door of the small thatched hut in which they were seated.
To Ruby, it seemed not as if she’d woken from a dream, but more as if she’d been distracted during a conversation, and could no longer remember what the topic had been before a sudden interruption.
“What?” she asked.
Her custodian smiled.
“Valhalla – where those who’ve died gloriously are taken.”
“I – huh.”
Ruby was surprised to see she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt she’d lost in the early days of the zombie plague, and she wondered briefly what her reflection would reveal should she encounter a mirror.
There were more pressing questions, however.
“Who are you?”
“Most call me Katharina Pfiati, although I was once known simply as The Butcher,” replied her thin-faced companion.”
“Yes, there was a night upon which I laid to rest twenty men.”
The conversation’s lull allowed Ruby to note the gunfire in the distance.
“I’ve seen Jacob’s Ladder,” she said. “Is this just some crazy last-hurrah rollercoaster ride my brain is giving me while I bleed out on the lawn? Am I about to die hallucinating? Is this world just built on adrenaline and shock? ”
Before her companion could answer, the cloth blocking her view to the exterior shifted aside, and a man in a slightly vintage US Marine uniform stepped into the room.
“Nah, the world’s real enough,” he replied. “It’s a bit like a quilt, stitched out of all the notable battlefields. It loops, though – or maybe it’s just round. I once convinced a guy to give me a ride in his sabre jet, and we spent the day doing laps. It took about eight hours to fly across, if my watch is to be trusted. On the other hand, the landscape tends to move every now and then, so don’t get too comfortable with any mental maps you might build.
“As to the rest, well, you’re already dead, so you ain’t likely to get much deader. You’re also late, which is sort of weird, but sometimes the valkyries like to take the long way home.
”Name’s Jenkins, by the way – Cutter or Leroy, whichever you prefer.”
Despite her ghostly status, Ruby found his handshake reassuringly solid.
“Time to go meet the boss,” said Cutter.
“Boss?” she asked. She’d never been a fan of being told what to do.
Jenkins caught the tone in her voice. “Oh, he’s nice enough. Some of the old timers have a problem with him – apparently he’s only been in management of the place for the last couple hundred years – but Blackhall’s a solid guy.”
The words made little sense to Ruby, but, as the trio strolled through the smoking remains of a formerly grassy field, it seemed that there would be plenty of time for explanations.
Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Canadian Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 License.