an edited version of the original October 2012 challenge piece
Many thanks to my beta, Maureen
Johnny Madrid sucked in a great breath of air and wiped his eyes clear as he waited for his heart to stop pounding. Fully aware now, he froze, straining for clues as to what was happening to him. Why was he standing in this dim, featureless room? An eerie moan filled the air; he realized he had been hearing it for several minutes. The sound came from a mass of...something...off to his left. When he focused on the mass he saw a dark pile of dead bodies. He knew somehow that there were thirty dead men in the pile.
Except dead men don't moan. Someone must still be alive in there. Johnny steeled himself to dig through corpses to find the living man. It was nasty work, but he had done it before. He had to locate whoever was moaning, and pull him out and...
When he approached the heap of bodies it started to pulsate.
Oh, shit. There must be more than one not-dead man in there. Shadowy figures began to rise, to stagger to their feet, to make indescribable noises. The corpses, all thirty of them, unbent and began to lurch through the dark room.
Breathing hard, Johnny spied a door he hadn't seen before and wrenched it open. Maybe someone out there knew what he was supposed to do with these men who were no longer dead. Was he supposed to kill them properly? He didn't want to kill them if he didn't have to, but maybe that's why he was there-killing men efficiently was what he did best.
The brightly lit room in which he found himself was full of people dressed for a party. They were happy and carefree and clean and none of them knew anything about the pile of dead men next door. No one knew what he was supposed to do with them now that they were no longer dead. Johnny leaned against a wall; he fought to control a rising sense of panic.
He knew the men were supposed to be dead. They weren't, though. They weren't exactly alive, but they definitely weren't dead. Whatever was going on was deeply wrong, and somebody was going to have to do something about these muertos vivientes.
Somebody? Johnny shook his head. Not "somebody"-him. It was up to him. God damn it, it was always his job to do the killing. He left the room of party-goers and reentered the dark room where the should-be corpses should have been.
It was empty.
He realized there was another door on the far side of the room; it was ajar. He knew the ghouls had gone through it, and it made him mad. Now he was forced to round them up before he could kill them.
He walked through the door into a noon-bright plaza complete with a stone water fountain. A fiesta was in full swing; children stopped playing to watch curiously as Johnny trailed the muertos vivientes. He found the children's lack of fear disturbing. The ghouls lumbered through the crowd with blood dripping from their wounds, leaving large crimson stains on the ground.
Johnny grabbed one of the muertos vivientes by the arm, turning him back toward the door to the dark room. As he steered the man he grabbed the arm of every not-dead man he could reach and pulled them into a shuffling herd, pushing them out of the blazing sunlight. It was hard to keep them going in the right direction, but he knew he had to get them back to the other place to finish killing them. The men and women in the plaza touched his shoulder and thanked him for taking such good care of the muertos vivientes. He wondered what they would say if they knew what he was going to do.
"Don't you see?" Johnny wanted to shout to the unhearing crowd. "You won't help me and I can't take care of them alone. I don't have enough beds, enough food, enough medicine!" The people in the plaza began to lose interest in the undead men. Johnny's desperation grew; he shouted at the crowd. "Isn't it better for them to die than to suffer?" But the revelers turned their backs on him. They returned to the fiesta. They left Johnny to deal with his burden alone.
Cursing, he continued rounding up the muertos vivientes, trying to herd them out of the plaza. If whoever had killed them the first time had done a better job of it he wouldn't be in this mess. Properly killed men didn't moan, or get up, or stagger around bleeding in front of children playing in a sunlit plaza. None of the men Johnny killed got up and walked. No one had to worry about his dead men waking up moaning.
Johnny Madrid's dead men stayed dead.
The muertos vivientes bled from their dead eyes as they stumbled back into the dark room. Johnny recoiled as they stared at him with no expressions on their faces.
Johnny Lancer woke with a gasp, his heart pounding in terror. The nightmare persisted. It always did. Knowing it was a dream did nothing to lessen its horror. Because the last ghoul who looked at him, expressionless, was his friend Isham.