General Fiction posted October 11, 2013

Not yet exceptional. When the exceptional rating is reached this is highlighted
A couple of newspaper hacks follow a story.

Soft, Red Hair.

by PhilipCatshill

We had to make the deadline. That's why Tom said we should laugh. "Humour is the one emotion they don't understand," he said. "Laugh, my boy; laugh and show them you are not afraid. Then run like hell."

I laughed then and for days after. Believe me, there is nothing more macabre than hearing the sound of laughter when you've been shuffling along barefooted with a naked corpse on your shoulders, but what the hell, I laughed.

We'd only just arrived in the office that day, and it was pretty clear we weren't going to be welcomed. This small town newspaper had it's own way of doing things and no one wanted it to change. The Brits now owned the press and being Brits, I guess the bosses thought putting us on the news team might ease things along. It didn't. Although we'd worked in the States for years, and at one time or another, had by-lines in all the major papers, Tom and I were not only foreigners, but we were also freelancers, and that would always put us on the outside of the team.

While we waited, Tom leaned against the telex as it rattled into life with incoming message. When it fell silent, Tom ripped the paper from the machine before anyone else could see it. Then he did the same with the carbon and the back copies from the roll.

"Big trouble, " someone shouted. We both laughed. They were right. Every newsroom had procedures, and at least one of those copies should have gone to the editor. He'd assess the story value and assign a reporter to cover it. Whatever it was, he'd always pick a guy from the team and never send a couple of maverick freelancers into the field.

Tom thrust the message under my nose but snatched it away giving me time for little more than a glance. "Come on, my boy," he said. "If we're quick we'll make the deadline. That'll make them sit up and take notice. I feel a scoop in the air. Keep your camera at the ready and make sure you have plenty of film in it."

Within seconds, we were in his four-by-four and screeching out of the car park. Tom threw the screwed up telex, the carbon and all four copies into my lap. I picked out the top copy and flattened it on my knee.

"Hey Tom, " I had to shout. The engine screamed in protest as Tom swung off the highway and headed into the desert. "This just says there's a minor gas leak probably from some obscure refinery way out in the middle of nowhere. That hardly warrants us crashing out of the car park."

I read it aloud this time, all two lines and ten words of it. "Deadline leakage. Increment anticipated. Now twenty. Host required. Please supply."

"Forget the damned message." Tom took his hand from the wheel and prodded the telex with his index finger. "See where it's from."

I looked down again. This time, two words in the heading caught my eye, "Top Secret." The telex was military, and the last people the military would send it to was a couple of British reporters visiting a backstreet newspaper in a way out town just south of the Arizona desert. Someone had misdialled or misdirected. I was staring at something no news hack was meant to see. Something flashed and boom! The four-by-four flew into the air.

Don't ask me how long I'd been unconscious. It might have been a few hours, even a few days. All I know is I woke under the blinding glare of the midday sun with Tom shaking me by the shoulder.

"Time to wake, my son," he whispered. "They must think we're dead." He put his hand under my head and turned me to look left. There must have been twenty or more bodies in a neat row of which I formed a part. All were naked. I quickly realised so was I. Tom laughed and said, "Looks like we've met our deadline."

"What happened?"

"We hit a land mine. Someone doesn't want visitors. Take another look, my son. These guys aren't quite as human as you and me."

I couldn't see what Tom was getting at. I leaned on my elbow and looked along the line of dead. They seemed human enough. Some were men with the bits you'd expect. Even the women had bodies they'd be proud to see. In life, I guess the women would have been classed as shapely and good-looking. In death, they still radiated unblemished beauty. Then it hit me. There wasn't a mark on any single one. Not a single freckle, mole, mark, scar or whatever soiled their looks. In comparison, both Tom and I had cuts and grazes, a few bruises, a bit of beard stubble, and a hell of a lot of sand clinging to every inch of flesh.

"I can't see anyone about," Tom said.

I shuffled until I could sit up. "We need to get into shade," I said. "We could roast out here."

"I want to get the story," Tom replied.

We stood up and walked up and down the line. "These corpses," I said, "they're identical - I mean, everyone has the same hair colour but wears it in a different style. When you take the hair away, male or female, the faces are the same."

Tom rubbed his chin. "What I can't figure," he began, "is how we came to be in a line that's dead straight."

"There must be someone about." I looked around as though some alien being might materialise, but there was nothing. The desert was dead flat in all directions. "What happened to your car?"

Tom shrugged and dropped to his haunches alongside one of the dead. "I know we hit a mine. If we go back with a story..."

"I'm ahead of you," I interrupted. "If we go back with story, they'll lock us away in the loony bin. If we get back with a body..."

Tom laughed. He laughed the macabre laugh of a man with a deranged mind as he heaved the nearest naked woman onto my shoulders. Her soft, red hair fell to the sand. "Hey," I complained, "You might have given me one who still had her hair."

Tom kicked the hair away and laughed, and I laughed with him. With no one about save for a line of dead, I couldn't say where the sense of fear came from, but fear was there, palpable in the air.

I ran through the desert with a bald-headed naked woman on my shoulders and Tom ran behind, laughing. We were both laughing, but not a living sole was there to hear, or so we thought.

I don't know how long had passed or even how far we had run. The laughter had long since stopped and all I could hear was Tom's foot falls on the sand behind me.

The sun beat down on my head and the corpse got heavier and heavier. Then my knees gave way. I sagged. The woman sailed over my head and crashed heavily to the desert floor. Her eyes were open and, in her death stare, she looked directly behind me.

Before I could turn, I needed a second or two to regain my breath, but when I turned, Tom wasn't there. I managed to scramble to my feet. "Tom," I called. I could see for miles around. There was nothing but sand. "Tom," I screamed and ran a few paces back along my footprints. I came to the place where his footsteps stopped. There was no sign of him, and nothing suggested he'd fallen. He'd just disappeared. I retraced my footsteps again and sat alongside the woman. I felt her breath on my face. I turned and those wide eyes blinked. Her mouth moved as though she was trying to speak. "You're alive," I said.

She shook her head. "I was a decade or two ago, but I died just like you."

"I'm not dead," I protested.

"But you are not a soldier. They stray too close sometimes. You're not a volunteer either, so who are you?"

"I'm just a hack chasing up a story."

She sat up and touched her bare head. "A newspaper man, I see. You have to take me back to the deadline."

"I don't understand..."

"No, and you won't, but if I don't make it back to the deadline, it means one of them will escape, and if it escapes, God knows who'll survive this time."

"This time?"

"Listen, Mr Hack, this is deadly important. Listen to me. I volunteered for this, a dozen others with me. It's the only way to contain them. We had to make the deadline. We died; the world lives but they breed. Do you understand? They are parasites and we haven't found a way to kill them. There are twenty now, but if one escapes the desert and finds human life, God knows how quickly they'll spread. The only way they can be contained is to give them a human body to live on. How did you and your friend escape?"

"I... erm... we laughed."

"Then keep on laughing. They don't understand laughter. Laugh and run like hell."

"Yeah," I said. I looked around. I don't know about you, but when someone says laugh or you shouldn't laugh, it feels like an itch that needs scratching. You have to do it, so I turned my face to the desert wind and boy, did I laugh. I was near hysterical. I turned back to the naked woman, but she had gone. All I could see was her soft, red hair lying in the sand. Like Tom, she had gone and not a trace remained, except that hair. I grabbed it up and ran like hell.

Either I ran in one big circle or the deadline moved, but there it was again. A row of perfectly formed human bodies without a blemish between them, except for Tom. Oh yes, he was there lying as stiff as a board in the deadline, but now, he had a thatch of thick red hair. His bruises had disappeared and only a few grains of sand distinguished him from the others. I could see he was changing right before my eyes. "Tom," I said.

He opened his eyes and said, "If you want to live, laugh. Humour is the one emotion they don't understand. Laugh, my boy; laugh and show them you are not afraid. Then run like hell."

I guess I was picked up somewhere, still clutching that hank of hair and laughing. It's no comfort, but I was right about one thing. Without a body to prove my story, I would be locked away in a loony bin and I guess that's where I am now. I stopped laughing a long time ago, but I guess I'm here for keeps. I don't get visitors, and it's been a few years since I saw a doctor. The nurse comes in occasionally - looking the same as the others who had to make the deadline all those years ago, except now, like me and everyone else around here, she wears a wig of soft, red hair.

This Sentence Starts The Story contest entry

Spellings are UK English, as are the two reporters.
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