Chapter One: Return of the Loving Dead

Chapter One

“This can’t be happening,” Amber said, her words muffled by a mouthful of bagel.

Amber Vanderkamp’s glass of orange juice slipped through her fingers, and she barely noticed when it shattered in the ceramic sink. She stared out the window and took a startled step backward, colliding into the kitchen island behind her. Her elbow bumped a steaming mug of coffee, sloshing the liquid onto the floor. It spread across the kitchen tile like some alien blob, but Amber didn’t even glance at the mess. She cleaned her sticky hands with a nearby paper towel and gazed intently through the kitchen window into the early shadows of a gloomy Monday morning.

Amber’s mother hurried into the kitchen, frowning as she dropped a kitchen towel over the spill and pressed her shoe into it to clean up the mess “What did you break?” she asked, before she glanced into the sink at the fragments. She sighed. “I always liked that set of juice glasses.” She reached over her daughter’s head and swung open the kitchen cabinet to fetch another coffee mug. “Use a paper towel to pick up those pieces, so you don’t cut yourself.”

“Mom,” Amber said mumbled around the wad of bagel in her mouth. “You’ve got to see this.”

Amber’s mother filled her fresh mug with coffee and opened the refrigerator to search for her vanilla creamer. “It’s still dark outside, Amber. And, yes, I know you can see the space station from here this early in the morning. Your father could never get enough of the science channel.” Her voice drifted off for a moment as she said the words aloud, and then she continued speaking. “And please don’t talk with your mouth full. Did you have bad dreams again last night, hon? I thought you were finished with those now. You’ve been sleeping so peacefully the last few months.”

Amber forced down the half-chewed bagel without glancing at her mother. What the heck is out there? she wondered.

“Amber?”

Amber still didn’t respond. It was as if the rest of the world had faded into oblivion.

Although Amber wore contacts that upgraded her eyesight to 20/20, she still found herself squinting as she gazed through the kitchen window into the backyard of her neighbor’s house.

“It’s just not possible,” she muttered.

“Dear, you keep saying that. What’s not possible?” her mother asked. She tried to press a hand to Amber’s forehead, but the high school senior deftly spun out of reach.

Her mother continued, undeterred. “Are you feeling ill? I know auditions for the role of Juliet have you stressed, but you really need to stop letting it worry you so much. You’ll do fine, honey. You always do.”

“It’s not that, Mom,” Amber said, never shifting her eyes from the window. “And I slept just fine last night. But I could have sworn I just saw someone in the Fenner’s backyard.”

Her mother finally walked over and peered out the window. “Where?”

Amber sighed. “He’s gone now.”

“Oh, well. It was probably Mr. Jones. The real estate agent was over there yesterday,” her mother offered. “Properties start to look run-down once people move out. Maybe he decided to hire a lawn service to tidy things up. Or maybe he’s showing the place to a potential buyer,” she added as an afterthought.

“It’s too dark to start mowing the lawn or whatever,” Amber mumbled. “The sun’s barely over the horizon. Besides, it sort of looked a little bit like Donnie.”

Eyebrows raised, her mother turned from the window and shuffled back to the kitchen counter. “Donnie Fenner? Now don’t let your imagination go running wild on you. You know that isn’t…well…likely. You saw him buried.” She absent-mindedly flipped through the stack of bills stamped “Overdue” sitting near the kitchen phone and sighed. “I knew you shouldn’t have gone to that funeral. And now look! You’re back to having bad dreams again.”

“Let it go, Mom. I know you didn’t want me to go, but the entire senior class was there. It would have been weird if I was the only one at home because her mommy said no. And I’m not having bad dreams!”

“We can talk later,” her mother said as she stirred another dash of vanilla creamer into her mug. “But you need to get ready for school, and I need to find something to wear for work. Luckily for us, I got called in for the rest of the week.” She took a small sip of her coffee to ensure there was enough creamer this time and carried it out of the kitchen with her.

“Nightmares. Friends having funerals. I wonder if I still have that therapist’s number, the one who cured of her bed-wetting when she was four,” Amber heard her mother mumble from the living room.

Amber rolled her eyes and returned her attention to the Fenner’s house. It was still early. Shadows stretched long and misshapen from the rooftops as the sun struggled to overcome the early-morning fog.

Shadows, she thought. I must be seeing shadows.

She started to turn away, but again, a shift in the morning fog caught her attention.

“Mom,” she shouted. “I’ll be right back.”

“Okay, honey,” her mom called from the next room. “Don’t forget to take your cell phone. It’s still sitting in the charger.”

Amber exhaled slowly and shook her head. “First of all, that’s your cell phone. I don’t even use that charger. And, second, I’m not leaving for school yet. I’m just going out to the backyard.”

“Have a good day, dear,” her mother replied as if she hadn’t heard a thing. “And wear a jacket. It’s a bit chilly this morning.”

Amber’s shoulders slumped.

Her mother had been such a space case since Amber’s father had died.

You’d think after two years― But Amber’s thoughts were quickly choked off by the memory of her dad, and she swallowed hard. Thoughts of her father always made tears gather in the corners of her own eyes, so she quickly forgave her mother and brushed the tears away.

Amber walked out of the kitchen, through the small dining area, and stood in the patio doorway.

She cupped her hands and held them like blinders around the sides of her face to shut out the light so she could focus through the patio doors. It didn’t help much. She could make out the Fenner house and the trees in the yard, but not much else. Her best friend, Jasmine, if she were here, would suggest the thing she saw was a vampire or werewolf or even the ghost of Donnie Fenner come back to haunt the neighborhood. No one―not even Jasmine would dare entertain the idea that what Amber saw might actually be one of them. Everyone knew the creatureshad all been taken care of and the threat was long past. Besides, Donnie’s funeral was still clear in her head. She had even cast a handful of soil on his coffin along with everyone else in her senior class. They didn’t let you bury just anybody anymore. Everyone had to be checked and tested, so it couldn’t be. It just wasn’t possible Donnie was back.

Of course, Jasmine always said anything was possible after what happened two years earlier. Heck, her best friend had even begun researching empirical evidence that might suggest the Tooth Fairy was real, so why not vampires or ghosts?

The thought of Jazz and her crazy ideas made Amber feel a little braver. She even grinned in spite of herself. If Jazz were here now, she would tell Amber how to arm herself with wooden stakes, silver bullets, garlic, and probably some obscure talisman made from rosewood or human bone.

Amber tugged on the sliding glass door and eased it open. The morning air was on the cool side, but there was no breeze. It never got very cold on Florida’s gulf coast. She hadn’t seen snow since the last time she had visited her grandparent’s house in Maine, and that had been enough snow to last a lifetime.

Before Dad―

She shook off the memory and stepped outside. Even though the air temperature was pleasant, the coolness of the patio cement made her shiver. She probably shouldn’t be barefoot, but going upstairs to put on shoes didn’t seem worth the trouble for a quick tour of the backyard. She paused for a moment before stepping onto the grass. There was a lawn rake leaning against one of the patio’s roof supports, and she wrapped her hand around it.

At least the handle is made of wood, she thought. Maybe I could break it and use it as a stake, if it’s a vampire. Wait, does it have to be a special kind of wood? She frowned, her shoulders sagging. What do I know? I’m a nonbeliever.

She giggled nervously. Jasmine Fairchild put a person’s imagination into high gear.

“Who’s there?” she shouted as she walked slowly through the grass, still damp with morning dew.

That’s right, Amber. Let them know you’re here.

The only thing separating the two backyards was a split-rail fence. She stopped as she reached what she felt was a very poor barrier between the two houses and peered into the shadows near the Fenner’s metal storage shed. She jumped and then cursed when the dog two doors down began barking for no obvious reason.

“Shut up, Gizmo!” she snapped.

The dog stopped barking. All Amber could hear after that was a bird rustling in the birdhouse built by Donnie Fenner several years earlier. Then even that noise faded.

Must be too early for birds, too, she thought. Those worms will never know how lucky they are.

Something moved.

Amber stepped back, the lawn rake tight in her fist.

“Who’s there?” she demanded again. “I have a gun!”

Now why the heck did I say that?

A shuffling sound emanated from the flower bed near the garden shed, and Amber inched back from the fence.

“I’m gonna call 9-1-1. I swear!” An image of her mom’s cell phone still in its charger flittered through her mind. Why didn’t I grab the phone?

And that’s when Donnie Fenner lurched out of the shadows.

“Impossible,” Amber whispered as the rake slipped from her grasp.

Donnie Fenner groaned and took an unsteady step in her direction. Even in the dim morning light, she could see he was still dressed in the same suit he had been buried in. As he took another step, she could make out the pale greenish skin and glassy eyes that come with death.

“Donnie?”

The boy moaned, again, and took another erratic step toward the fence.

Amber turned but tripped over the discarded rake and tumbled to the wet grass. A scream gathered in her throat but was choked to silence when someone―or something―grabbed her ankle. She scrambled forward and jumped to her feet. She never looked back as she dashed for the patio, stumbled through the open sliding glass door, and fell. The hardwood dining room floor was not as kind to her as the grass outside, and she winced. She reached up, shoved the door shut, and quickly locked it. When she looked back out at the backyard, Donnie―or whoever it was―was gone.

“Amber?”

She gasped at her mom’s call and backed away from the door, clutching a hand to her chest. “Geez, Mom! You scared the―”

“Watch your language, young lady,” she said, holding up an admonishing finger. “I thought you had left for school already. What in the world were you doing in the backyard?”

Amber took a deep breath to calm her rapidly beating heart. “I just saw Donnie Fenner.”

Valerie Vanderkamp clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “I thought we already had this conversation.”

“That was when I thought I saw Donnie Fenner. Now I know I saw Donnie Fenner. He was trampling through the flower bed by his old patio. Well, I guess there is really nothing there to trample anymore. Now it’s just a bunch of dead pansies and petunias.” What am I saying? What do flowers have to do with anything? “Mom, I just saw―”

“They’re marigolds,” she interrupted.

“What?”

“They’re marigolds, not petunias. And the garden is dead because no one is there to take care of it. I think the Fenners moved to Idaho. Or Iowa. I can’t recall. Whichever state they grow potatoes in. And that’s ironic, since I don’t think Mr. Fenner even liked potatoes according to his wife. Or maybe it was Indiana. I’m sure it was a state beginning with the letter I.”

“You’re rambling again, Mom.”

“Was I? I don’t think so. Now what were you saying?”

“Nothing,” Amber said, narrowing her eyes. “It couldn’t have been Donnie. I’ve obviously been imagining things. I think Jazz’s imagination is starting to rub off on me. Or maybe it was the magic mushrooms I ate for breakfast.”

“Oh, I don’t think they grow mushrooms here. I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of Iowa,” her mom said as she smoothed the wrinkles in her skirt with one hand.

“Right. Earth to Mom, I think our communications have been compromised.” She glared at her mother. How can she not believe me? But a pang of sadness wrenched her insides at the thought of her mom dealing with her father’s death all on her own two years earlier. Amber hadn’t even been able to get home in time for the funeral because of the lockdown at camp. It must have messed her up. It couldn’t have been Donnie I saw out there anyway. I was there when he was buried. I must be imagining things.

“Maybe you’re right,” Amber conceded with a sigh. “It was probably some landscaper dude here to fluff the marigolds or whatever.”

Her mom tapped her index finger on her lips. “Maybe it was Kansas. Do they grow potatoes in Kansas?”

Amber bit her lip to squash the impulse to roll her eyes.

“Your dad liked corn, but he hated mushrooms, sweetie. You must get mushrooms from me,” her mom muttered as she sipped at her coffee. “Have you seen my cell phone?”

Amber exhaled slowly and shook her head. Another typical conversation at the Vanderkamp house, she thought. Still a little unnerved, she flinched when the front doorbell rang―three times.

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