Return Service (A Short Horror Story)
I had to put a birdcage on Weston Garnett’s head today. Actually that’s not fully accurate. I suppose what I should say is that I was the one that had to put the birdcage back on Weston Garnett’s head. Because he was already wearing it when I arrived at his home, when his wife Victoria let me in, asking if I wanted some tea or coffee before I went upstairs and saw to him. I think she asked not only to be polite but also out of some sort of need to feel useful just at that moment. To be in control of something, even if it was as simple as offering a Service Agent a cup of coffee or tea. So even though I wasn’t thirsty I told her I’d like a cup of coffee, cream and sugar please. Then I saw to Weston Garnett with his head in a birdcage.
I’d known Victoria Garnett, almost as long as I’d known Agent Weston Garnett, which is since I was a kid and I didn’t like seeing her like this. I knew it was Garnett himself who asked for me specifically, and that Mrs. Garnett probably agreed with the choice, but I wondered if seeing me here now to provide the Service for her husband just made Victoria feel even more helpless. Me, the skinny eleven-year-old girl she used to take care of and treat like her own daughter, the one who could barely recite her Service Pledge, the one she used to hold when I cried and got homesick and I made her promise not to tell the other recruits about it. Now it’s twenty years later and I can’t shake the feeling that the sight of me there to take care of her and Garnett must have made her feel so goddamn old.
But she was old and so was Agent Garnett. Both lived through much of the Second Renaissance. I was born just around when they turned the light back on, when they brought electricity back to the cities. Three decades and counting later and there are still a few towns and territories that go without. Dark towns, some of the Agents call ‘em. Some towns stay dark just because we’re still working on getting them integrated. These towns are so far out from the rest of the territories that it makes it hard to get them up and ready. But some of the other dark towns they just seem to prefer using candlelight. Prefer how things have become. How they’ve become like things used to be. The way they used to be a long, long ago. They think that maybe that’s the way things ought to have been all along. That maybe electricity and things like it are what put us all on the path for being forced back into the dark in the first place.
I don’t think that. I don’t put much stock in any of the superstitions to tell the truth. Some people think that’s a mighty queer thing for an Agent of the Return Service to say. What with the ceremony and ritual of it and all. But that’s mostly just for the sake of faithful and superstitious folks who want a little pageantry when it comes to the Service. I don’t have a problem with that either, not really. Doesn’t harm anybody saying a few words if that’s what makes people feel better about the Service. Just don’t ask me to believe any of it. I’ll say whatever you need to hear but when it comes my time I don’t want anyone saying a lick of that mumbo jumbo nonsense. That’s one of many things that Garnett taught me as my Instructor.
I remember when I was younger, just graduating from the Academy, Garnett telling me, “Halperin, you live long enough to see the Service put to me, make sure I don’t get any words. You hear me? I don’t want any words put to me.” I remember him then, grey at his temples but beyond that not a hint of age. Not really at least. I mean, I could tell he was old, he sure didn’t look young but he didn’t look frail in any way either like most people do once they get on in their years. Even as the years stretched on and I saw him less and less as I worked Return Service in different towns whenever we’d catch up and the grey had spread through the rest of his hair and beard, besides that he still looked the same. Not old but hardened. Like instead of growing old he was slowly being turned into a statue.
So on that day when he told me he didn’t want any words put on him I agreed and I told him I see to it but I didn’t really think it’d ever come to pass. That some day the Great Agent Garnett would have the Service put to him. That some day that statue would crack. But he did. That day we spoke he told me, “Just because I don’t want words put on me doesn’t mean I don’t think there something to life after all this. I’m not the type to suppose I know one way or the other. I just don’t think anyone else knows any better than me either. I tell you this though: Even if nothing waits on the other side of that old black door I’ll be happy enough to step through it just knowing that I won’t have to go back from where I’ve just been. That…that’s comfort enough for me. At least more comfort than any words could ever be.”
I was asleep at the station when I got word that Mrs. Garnett had sent the signal. The Agent in Command had knocked on my door then he walked in and told me with sleep still in my eye that Garnett was ready for me. I had been expecting this moment for the last few weeks but when it came something just didn’t seem right. Something about the Agent in Command standing in my doorway giving me my orders like this just seemed out of place. Then it occurred to me what was missing. The alarm, the station alarm. I’ve never had the Agent in Command give me my orders without it sounding in the background. I’ve never heard him deliver my mission without having to scream it to me over the shrill triple bells of that alarm. I’ve never woken for a mission without the familiar shock of it first screaming me alive. That whole part of the Service ritual was missing. Usually the second the alarm sounds my training took over. I’d sit up on my bunk, strap on my boots then rise up and grab my turnout coat, my protective mask and of course my cattle gun.
But instead here was my Agent in Command, standing in the quiet of the night, calmly almost solemnly giving me my orders, “Agent Garnett is ready to see you now, Agent Halperin. He’s ready for the Service.” I told him I understood, then asked if Agent Garnett had been prepared properly? He told me the call they received from Mrs. Garnett confirmed that he had been prepared and awaited processing. The Agent in Command left me to prepare myself. And with him gone, coupled with the absence of the usual alarm sounding, the act of getting my gear on became a nearly foreign exercise to me.
I had been preparing for this day, trying to approach it as much as I could as just another Service. Knowing full well that it wasn’t but that it would help me to execute if I treated it as such. But now, from the onset, the mission was proving to be unusual. Nonstandard. It also occurred to me then how important the shock of the alarm was in setting the pace for my missions. How beginning everything with that lightning strike and the subsequent fervor and din of me and my fellow agents preparing for Service together was what I needed now. How that compacted roar cleared the mind and prepared it for what lay ahead. Duty. No time to mull over any lingering sentimental details or slippery abstract intellectual ideals; all of this washed over by the flood of ritualized behavior. Instinct, pure and simple. But there I was, and instead of instinct and that sense of camaraderie, even family that one gets when readying themselves for battle with others, instead of that I was left with the too loud sound of my service boots as I dragged them across the night floor so I could quietly step into them. I felt like a mouse sneaking through a still, sleeping house as I left the station dressed for duty that night.
I used to sometimes ask Garnett about this duty, the Service and the tradition of it when I was younger. He’d usually tell me to pay more attention in history class and to leave him alone but every now and then, when the mood struck, he’d tell me what I wanted to know. Garnett was a second generation Service Agent, a lot of the other Agents in Command were actually third generation and quite a bit younger than him. He was one of the last of his kind. Last to not only train but still work in the field for sure. This was probably because few of his generation ever made it to old age. Things were a lot harder, for Agents and everyone else, back then before and during the Second Renaissance. I hated my studies, I could never pay attention to someone giving a lecture but someone telling a story, especially a story that they saw firsthand; that I could listen to.
I’d ask Garnett about everything. Even the things I already knew, the things that everyone knew, things that all ordinary citizens of the territories knew. I’d ask him just to hear his take on it and just to see if what I’d been taught was actually the truth. “Before we used what’s commonly called a birdcage nowadays,” Garnett told me, “We used to use a protective metal box that only had two openings in the old days. One big sideways slit lined up right about where the eyes were and one small opening in the back for captive bolt access.”
“That sounds a lot safer than a birdcage why did they stop using those protective boxes?” I asked him.
“You’re right, they were safer. All you really need is a slot so that you can see your returner’s eyes to make sure that you’ve done your job and a hole in the back of the box so that you can do that job. Hell, if we were being truly efficient all we’d need is that one slit in the front for the eyes, you can hit the target with a cattle gun just as well through the front… but why do you suppose we don’t do that?”
“…for the returner’s family’s sake. So they can have an open casket?”
“Very good, Halperin. What we do isn’t just about efficiency, it’s for the family the returners are leaving behind. To help them adjust. Which is why the birdcages started becoming popular. You see, usually you put the cage on before it’s someone’s time, before they return. People hated having to cover the face of someone they loved, especially in their final hours. Once we introduced the birdcages not only were people happier, a lot more of them used them appropriately. Earlier. They didn’t wait until it was too late like what happened too many times with the old protective boxes.”
Even with birdcages people can wait until it’s too late. I’ve seen it firsthand. One time I was working in an east territory and the entire station was called in because some poor, grief-blinded mother couldn’t bring herself to put a cage on her dying ten-year-old boy’s head. She had managed to put one shackle on him and according to her was in the process of applying the other restraints when the boy gave in to the sickness he had been fighting and died. She reported that his incubation period was rapidly short and that he returned only moments later as she was still clutching his corpse. Luckily before the returned boy could bite her and spread the curse the mother managed to pull away. The returner immediately started thrashing at its former mother but was held in place by the one restraint the woman had brought herself to attach to the child’s left wrist. Unfortunately this was to be short-lived as the returner proceeded to rapidly chew through its own wrist, managing to bite through the bone and sever the limb far enough that the remainder of the bound flesh was pulled off as the creature lunged its way toward its former mother and freedom.
The mother reports that she fled outside her home at this point and went next door to a neighbor’s to make a call to the local station. While on the telephone she indicated that the returner instead of following her to the neighbor’s house seemed to have forgotten her and was traveling up the road toward its former grade school. While this bewildered the returner’s former mother it is actually quite common, documented behavior. Upon returning many subjects while exhibiting the marked hostility and aggression that we normally associate with returners will also demonstrate a sort of capriciousness and become much more easily distracted than their tenacious, longer returned counterparts. They will also, like the returned boy seemingly wandering back toward his grade school, show signs of attempting to repeat patterns, or other learned behaviors from their former life. Returners when not properly processed and left to wander are often found at sites like schools, workplaces and churches; anywhere frequented and at a usual set time. If left unprocessed for a day or two most returners discard this preoccupation with their old, for lack of better word, haunts, and begin to roam and look for living to infect wherever they may find them. Whatever fading trace still inside them that sent them back to where they so often went before when they were alive is now finally extinguished. Leaving only the husk that they’ve now become.
We found the returned boy at his grade school, the bell had just rang, school was out, there were children everywhere. When we arrived we saw him lumbering toward the mass of children headed the opposite direction, headed home. At first no one seemed to notice that he was returned, that he was missing a hand, none of them seemed to remember any of their safety lessons or their drills. But either they caught sight of us rushing toward the returned boy or they finally took a hard look at their former classmate because one of them screamed, “It’s dead!” Panic hit but was quickly contained and controlled.
“Everyone calm, my name is Agent Halperin, I’m from the Service and I will be taking care of this today. Now everyone slowly walk back to your classrooms until this is resolved. Remember slowly. Just like in a drill.” They listened, most of them.
“Is that Ollie?”
Two children, one boy, one girl both were continuing to walk toward the returned. They seemed oblivious to the danger or in some state of shock. I remember the girl calling out, “Ollie, why aren’t you in bed?” The returned was about twenty feet from the two children and both it and they were drawing in quickly. It was too far to fire my cattle gun so instead I drew out my pistol and took aim. I heard the boy clearly say, “What’s wrong with him? Where’s Mom?” just before the clap of the shot took all the sound out of the world. I aimed true and the shot went directly into the back of the returner’s head, destroying the cursed brain and causing the subject to fall deanimated. If it had been any closer I might have had to forgo the pistol in fear of contamination to the children via open mouths or even through the eyes from the spill out of the shot. If that had been the case I would have rushed up and taken the subject to the ground and then either used my axe or my cattle gun.
Even though it was fortunate that the outbreak was contained as quickly as it was it didn’t change the fact that the processing of the returned had to be performed in non-ideal settings and with the worst of audiences. Neither of the children said anything. The boy was weeping and the girl was quiet, still. Neither looked at me, which I’m grateful for. They just looked at the subject, formally Ollie, who was face down with the back of his head missing. Before I could say anything to either one of them, confirm if the returned had been their brother, one of the school faculty, presumably noticing at last that they were missing, came rushing outside. The man apologized to me for some reason about overlooking the two children and then he took both of them away from the scene. The boy continued sobbing, shaking violating, the man had to carry him. The little girl, she walked along with them silently. As I watched all three leaving right before they went back inside the building the girl turned around and fixed on look on me. I’d like to say that she was still looking my way as the man closed the door but I had at that point already turned away myself so that I could get back to the work.
At Garnett’s house I took hummingbird sips of the coffee Victoria brought me and bled the clock as long as I could. She joined me, drinking her own coffee with short sips and we took turns not looking at one another. It was only twice we caught each other staring at the other, twice we smiled back. Finally, the third time we did this she said, “He would have laughed his ass off at the two of us right now, nervous as two deer sipping from a pond.”
“Yes, he would have.” I smiled and put down my cup. “I’ll miss hearing that laugh.”
“Oh, bullshit, he had a terrible laugh, like a drunken mule. And he knew it too. Which only made it funnier to him when he shared it.” She wasn’t wrong.
“You’re right. I’m still going to miss it.”
Mrs. Garnett, Victoria put down her own cup and said, “Of course you will, dear.” She turned and looked up the staircase. “Same as I will... I’m going to miss every goddamn bit of that man that I couldn’t stand.” I take her by the arm when she places her hand on mine, pats it two times, lets me know that she can do this. That she’s not falling apart, not yet. Then she looks up at the staircase again.
I tell her, “I’m ready.”
She gives a small smile, “No, you’re not.”
“…was he?” For some reason I ask it. Selfishly, like a child demanding and pleading to be consoled.
But then she answers back, “No, not really, but what differences does it make? Come on, I’ll be right here with you… like I was with him.”
Together we climbed that staircase arm in arm, nearly marching up it in a slow, measured procession. The old wood under each step making a different, distinct, low fat creak, like a xylophone made of bullfrogs. By the time we got halfway up it that wasn’t the only sound in the house anymore. He… it heard us. Or maybe it smelled us. Whichever alerted it to our presence caused it to begin moaning.
Like some greenhorn fresh out of the academy I froze at the sound. Like I hadn’t heard that same pitiful, unearthly low howl before. That ugly, almost underwater gargled kind of sound. Like a broken horn or a slimy conch, a dulled damp roar that sounded so depressingly lost and almost human that you never really got used to it. But you didn’t let it shake you either. Not in the field. But then I never heard it come out of the throat of someone I really knew before. Never caught the traces of their old voice still trapped in the sound like flies in amber. Never heard that little bit of someone that’s still laced underneath all the hideous new murk of what they’ve now become. Sounding like it wanted to get out. But I heard it then. Garnett’s voice making that sound.
“…He sounds almost like him,” Victoria said. I nodded and then together we pressed on to the top of the stairs. I didn’t hesitate at the door but time seemed to stretch and my reaching out to the doorknob and turning it seemed to last an eternity. As I pulled open the door the returned let out another long moan and in some last grasp for nerve I swung the door back almost violently and stepped into the room. There he…it was. On his knees, shackled properly, perfectly even. Bound with chain from his wrists and his ankles and atop his shoulders sat the birdcage. And behind it, behind the long, too thin bars were two fiercely blue eyes. As is customary, the retuned thrashed and moaned at our arrival, its fettered limbs and caged maw unable to do much. But his… its eyes did not thrash. There was no sign of malice or animal hostility there. The eyes sat like stone in the sockets while the surrounding flesh grimaced and furrowed, curled and peeled back with inhuman aggression. The eyes just stared like the subject was asleep with them open. I had never until this case seemed to notice this aspect of the returned. Briefly, a part of me attempted to convince myself that Garnett was special, unique from the other inflicted. Part of me, a tiny silver in my mind, wanted to believe that Garnett was somehow fighting back from inside. That the man that trained me, the man that taught me how to process, how to fight and destroy, that he and he alone had found a way to beat the sickness. That he was just too damn stubborn to lay down and die and let something take over his body. But of course that was not the truth.
The reason that recruits are shipped away from their hometowns and territories is to minimize the chance that they’ll have to process someone they know. Especially a loved one. This is the same reason that all Agents are prohibited from being stationed or deployed where their families live. This is also why my Agent in Command was resistant to me being assigned to process Agent Garnett when the time came. But Garnett and I talked him into it. My field record, pardon the lack of modesty, was outstanding and Garnett was a legend; he got what he wanted. Of course my Agent in Command could have just placated the dying old man and then when the time came sent somebody else, Garnett would have no way of knowing, but I think he respected Garnett too much for that. And he believed in me too much too. He must have, because right then I was experiencing everything I was taught that the returned’s loved ones experienced and I was nearly under its sway. The delusions, the near hypnotic trance from looking too long into the eyes of a returned you knew, it was cutting in to me. Digging in, deeper and deeper. So I put my head down and took a step back. “Bellamy, are you okay?”
“I am. But right now I need you to call me Halperin.”
“Halperin… very well.”
I brought my head up and took my hand gently out of Mrs. Garnett’s and I took out my cattle gun. The weight of the pistol seemed unnatural, like it was as heavy as when I had first held one as a young girl back when Garnett had shown me how to use it. I approached the subject, avoiding eye contact and made my way behind it. “Are you sure you want to see this?” I asked Mrs. Garnett. She nodded and I lifted my anchor of a pistol up and pointed it through an opening in the birdcage toward the back of the subject’s skull. This is an ideal shot. The captive bolt will go in through the back of the cranium, destroying brain tissue and deanimating the subject while still leaving the subject’s face intact for the benefit of the returned’s loved ones. The thing in the cage makes another sound and I coil my finger around my trigger. I take a breath and prepare to squeeze but nothing comes. I look down at my hand half expecting there to be some obstruction, some reason that I can’t fire my cattle gun. But there’s nothing. I had thought not having to look at the subject would stiffen my resolve but I can still hear him. And even worse I can still see Mrs. Garnett, watching and waiting for me to do my duty. I let out a long sigh and then go to squeeze the trigger again. …I still can’t do it. The pistol has become impossibly heavy at this point but I’m afraid to let it drop because I’m not sure I’ll be able to lift it again, if I’ll find the nerve to lift it again. I consider telling Mrs. Garnett that I need her to leave, that her presence there is preventing me from performing my duty. But I know that isn’t fair to her. She wants to be here, she’s earned the right to be here. I’m not going to ruin her goodbye on account of my own weakness.
So I ready myself again. A stiff, sharp ache is setting into my arm, from my forearm up into my bicep causing the gun I’m holding to tremble ever so slightly. I need to make this shot or put my arm down. I don’t know why Garnett thought I could do this or even why he wanted me to do it? Was there a lesson here that I was missing? Why me, Garnett? As if to answer the returned lets out another gurgled moan. I close my eyes trying to shut it out, to concentrate, to pretend this is just another mission. I open my eyes, steady my arm, which feels likes it’s been dipped in flame at this point, and try to squeeze the trigger. I can’t do this. I let my arm drop. The relief from that is quickly swallowed up by the shame of having to face Mrs. Garnett and tell her I can’t do this. But then I hear her say, “We of the Return Service are here today to process the returned…”
The words. I shouldn’t be surprised that she’s memorized them herself. When I look at her even though her eyes are swimming there is a fierceness there. A hardness that shines through the all the wet. She continues, “…to end his curse, the curse that has been laid down by God to all the living so many years before…” She pauses and finally I join her.
I join her saying, “…for what we have not been told. Nor do we care. It is not our place to question God’s divine wisdom only to exact God’s swift mercy by ending the curse and freeing the returned the only way we know how…” I stop my recitation when I feel the hot stick of tears spill out over my face. “This isn’t right. Garnett never wanted words put on him.”
“I know that,” she answered.
“He told me, it wasn’t important to him. He didn’t believe in any of it. And neither do I.”
“Yes, I know that too.”
I take the hand still holding the pistol and wipe my cheeks. “Then why are we doing this?”
From over the birdcage, Mrs. Garnett’s steely eyes lock on to me. “Because this isn’t about him anymore. He’s gone, Bellamy.”
I join her when she begins again with the words, “…freeing the returned the only way we know how, through force. We are here to serve God’s will and return the mortal remains of Weston Garnett, his faithful servant, to the earth where he can rest…” I keep on with the next verses, all of it spilling out of my mouth automatically. Like it always does. As I’m doing this I raise up my pistol. I never take my eyes off Victoria, I don’t need to. My aim is true, it always is, I’ve done this enough times to know my place between the bars of the cage. And as the last word falls from our lips I squeeze the trigger without thinking and the subject goes slack in its chains. No more sound from inside the cage. Victoria’s face is just as still and I walk over next to her before turning to see. From behind the thin bars of the birdcage I see those same brutally blue eyes sinking into me but now all the chaos around them has fallen away. The subject is gone and instead it is Weston Garnett’s head that I see in a birdcage. I drop my pistol on the wooden floor and Victoria takes my hand as I say my goodbye to him.