In a little hill town of perhaps eight hundred people in northern New Mexico, a new sheriff has just arrived. Who knows where the old one went? Who knows what everyone is so afraid of? Certainly not the new sheriff, who sits in the ’70’s paneled tavern across the street from the sheriff’s station that is the social center of the town, drinking nothing and trying to get someone to talk. Nobody does.
Not that they aren’t friendly. In this town everyone knows everyone else; they know when somebody comes home from a long trip abroad, they know when a baby is born or someone dies, they know when someone new shows up, they know when someone disappears. Everyone welcomes the sheriff at their table. Everyone has a kind word or a smile, or even a hug. They are glad to see the sheriff. This town needs a sheriff desperately.
But no one will tell her why.
The sheriff is me: a worn-faced woman in her forties, in jeans and a long brown duster, with shoulder-length, wispy, unruly blond hair that looks at any given moment on the verge of going white. She is scared–I am scared. Justifiably scared, and growing more so by the minute.
People have been disappearing. They were disappearing before she got here; it’s why she came. It’s still happening. She doesn’t know everyone in town by name, but there are faces she saw when she got here that she doesn’t any more. Not that the rest would admit it if she asked. Not that they’d even answer.
Every conversation she starts ends in the same pair of warnings.
“Don’t go near the bridge. Don’t go near the barn.”
“Why?” she asks. They won’t say.
There are many barns, but the sheriff knows they’re talking about only one: the abandoned barn out at the north border of town, by the river. And there’s only one bridge: the one next to the barn.The sheriff leaves her car by the side of a dirt road and walks the grasslands with her hands in the pockets of her coat. It must be winter; the grass is still pale green, but the wind bites. She doesn’t know why she is here, except to get away from the people too frightened to help themselves. Something is following her: a shaggy, gray-brown dog, a strange mixed breed, perhaps of coyote blood. It keeps its distance, half-hidden in the grass, just watching. She has seen it before, walking alone on the street in town like a rabid thing out of its mind. She shivers.
She whirls on it. “What? What do you want?”
“Don’t go near the bridge,” it answers. “Don’t go near the barn.” And suddenly it isn’t a dog, but a woman–a small, older woman, hair even paler than mine, face even more worn–not frightening at all, in her turquoise plaid work-shirt and jeans. She is some kind of sorceress, a shape-shifter, a watcher like me, protecting the town–only she has given up.
Not frightening at all, yet I start awake with a gasp, and stare around the darkened bedroom wondering how I am to fall asleep again with the dog-woman waiting for me. I look at the clock. 4:00 AM. I could lie here awhile thinking happy thoughts, trying to force her out of my head. Or I could go back to that town and find some answers, and force the dream to my will.
I lay my head down on the pillow, and there I am again in the grasslands.
The sheriff drives north, her car bouncing wildly and kicking up dust, going much too fast for that old country road. But she has to know, and there’s only one place to find out: the place way out on the border of town, where the river churns past that abandoned old barn.
She doesn’t stop until she gets there, and perhaps she wouldn’t have even then, driven right on by her fear, over the bridge and out of this town for good. Only there isn’t any bridge, and there isn’t any barn.
She gets out of the car. The river roars, white-capped and dark, and all around it, scattered in the grass, half-buried in the pale orange dirt, are the ripped-apart tatters of the barn. It looks as if the river reared up out of its bed and tore that barn to bits with its jaws, and then just left it there, as if it knew the wood was diseased.
There’s no sign of the bridge at all. As if the way out of this town never even was. The sheriff gets back in the car, and slams the door.
What secret did they keep locked in that barn, and where is it now?
She wheels the car around and goes south, faster than she came.
In town, in the tavern across from the sheriff’s station, everybody’s waiting, even the dog-woman in the turquoise plaid shirt. It’s about to be dusk.
“What was in that barn?” the sheriff asks. Nobody answers. “You shouldn’t have gone there,” says the dog-woman. Then night falls, and she knows, because the lost townspeople are all around them in the dark–dead, but walking.
Zombies–not rotten and torn like the traditional ghoul, but half-melted, half-liquid, parts of them flooding out into the air in a cloud that the feeble streetlight fears to pierce. And they advance, and the townspeople just stand there like it’s all alright, and suddenly the sheriff remembers the twin nickel-plated revolvers, and suddenly they’re in her hands, and the dead people are falling in the street, and the living ones are crying out.
Twelve shots, twelve dead things on the ground, but there are more. The sheriff shoves one revolver under an arm and reloads the other, glancing sharply around at the living, accusing.
“What could we do?” asks the witch. “They’re our family.”
A little boy watches one of the shadows dart close. “They love each other. They just want us to be part of it.”
“Love,” spits the sheriff, her voice full of scorn, snapping the cylinder home.