There’s a ghost town in America that’s been burning since the early 60s. When I found out about it, I had to write a story about the kind of people who might live there… and what they might have to burn…
The cemetery on the hill had tall clouds of black smoke rising from it as Ray’s truck pulled into town, but that wasn’t unusual. This was Centralia, and everything here was either burning or falling down.
Ray checked his watch. The Armadillo was late.
From the back of the truck, there was movement. Awkward, jerking movement, followed by the cracking of bones and low, agonised moans. Ray’s cargo was pulling itself back together, stitching together broken bones and regrowing lost flesh. That was the problem with the undead; every time you killed them, they found it a little easier to come back. Practice made perfect.
Ray was about to turn on one of his gospel CDs when there was a sharp rap at the door. The Armadillo was standing outside, arms folded and looking like he’d been waiting there for days.
Ray wound down the window. The smell of burning hit him immediately, the acrid bite of hot coal mixed with the unmistakable odour of undead flesh. At least it masked the legendary musk of The Armadillo, who looked like he hadn’t seen a bath since the last time Ray had been here.
No more than five feet tall, the Armadillo was a strangely wiry creature. Bald and clean-shaven, with skin that was wrinkled in a way that didn’t look like the result of old age. The Armadillo looked like he had once been a big man, but something unnatural had shrunk him down to what he was now, leaving his old skin wrapped around him like a secondhand coat. Ray didn’t know why he was called The Armadillo, but he’d heard a rumour that the guy had once dug himself out from a mine collapse with his bare hands. Depending on who told the story, he’d been underground for anything from two days to two weeks. Of course, if you listened to some people, it wasn’t his own hands he’d dug his way out with.
“What you got for me?” croaked The Armadillo. He had the voice of an old man, croaky and cracking, but that could have been the smoke. Ray couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live here, constantly under the clouds and dust. Reflexively, he pulled a fresh face mask from the glove box and pulled it over his nose and mouth.
“Some sort of zombie,” replied Ray. He tossed a clipboard of paperwork out to The Armadillo. “I think they called it a Class Four? Heals fast, I’ll tell you that much. I had to go ’round back and break its legs three times on the way here.”
The Armadillo raised a dust encrusted eyebrow. “What’d you use?”
“Sledgehammer,” replied Ray, his voice muffled by the mask. He guessed The Armadillo would be used to it, he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting the breathe the air in this place.
“Huh,” grunted The Armadillo. “I’m an axe man myself. Sever a few tendons, that’s the trick. They always seem to have trouble growing those back properly. They’re never quite the same. That’s why so many of them “
“I’ll give it some thought,” said Ray, with the unmistakable tone of a man who will do no such thing. He’d been a hammer man for ten years, and he wasn’t going to change now.
The Armadillo pulled a thick tipped marker out of the pocket of his dirty overalls and ticked off a few pages in the paperwork before tossing it back to Ray through the open window.
“Looks in order,” he grunted. “Let’s get him out. I’ve got my cart ’round back.”
Ray hopped out of the cab, dragging his sledgehammer off the passenger seat, and followed The Armadillo around to the back of the truck. The thing inside threw itself up against the wall as Ray passed, rocking the truck from side to side. Ray’s grip on his hammer tightened.
Ten years. Another three, and his term was up. That was nine, maybe ten runs at most. Ten more runs and he was out. No more zombies, no more monsters, no more things that didn’t even have a name. No more truck, no more Centralia, and no more Armadillo.
“You … busy?” Ray asked idly, as he fished the keys for the three padlocks that secured the back doors of the truck out of his jeans. Small talk was all part of the process, Ray’s subconsciousness need to humanize this most inhuman of processes, his sanity boarding up the doors and windows of his brain.
“Too busy,” replied The Armadillo, “Time was, I saw one truck every couple of months. Now, I’m seeing two or three a week.”
“That many?” asked Ray. He had assumed there were others, that he couldn’t be the only person in his … line of work. But two or three trucks a week, coming from all over the country?
“New recruits a lot of them,” The Armadillo replied. “Full of questions. Pain in my arse. And not one visit from anyone who can tell me what to do once the mine gets full.”
“It’s getting full?” Ray asked, snapping open the first two padlocks. “I thought that thing went on forever.”
The Armadillo pulled a rusty old axe from underneath his heavy metal wheelbarrow. “It’ll probably burn forever,” he replied. “Anthracite vein’s been burning since ’63, but the mine is only so big. We pack ’em in too tight, they’re not gonna burn right, and then all hell breaks loose.”
Ray slipped the third key into the third and final padlock. Inside the truck the thing had started to pound on the doors. Ray wondered if it knew what was waiting for it. As far as he had been told, the undead didn’t feel pain, not in the way that humans did, but the thought of being trapped in a perpetually burning mine, your flesh constantly being burnt away only to regrow again? Living forever, burning to death every day? It was close enough to the description of hell that Ray had grown up with that he could even feel sympathy for the snarling, biting, hate filled thing that was trapped in the back of his truck. If he were a religious man, he would wonder if Centralia was really Hell on Earth, clambered up from beneath the soil to claim the dead that thought they had escaped the clutches of the afterlife and its judgements.
“What you gonna do when it’s full then?” Ray asked.
“Don’t know,” replied The Armadillo. “If no one comes up with a better way of keeping these things down? I guess I start digging again, build a new shaft.”
“Guess so,” said Ray.
He snapped the padlock open. The thing in the truck fell silent.
“You sure you don’t want an axe?” The Armadillo asked.