Casket Girls: What we take for Granted


Jean’s mind drew a blank as he tasted dust and defeat on his lips whilst sitting beneath a shattered door post that used to be the entrance to Pauline’s Pâtisserie. He silently observed the ruins at the other side of the street - though the latter was more of a suggestion- from which stuck a feminine hand. Louise’s hand, frozen in a mannequin-eque pose and pale as porcelain. Just before, Jean had confused the sweet scent of caramel and cement-dust for Louise’s perfume.
It took a while for the reality to sink in. All which remained of her was crushed beneath the rubble. Her pretty face which visited him in his dreams. Her smile that made his heart flutter. It only existed in his memory now, and he wanted them to go away.
In the distance, the clock on the church tower displayed 1:47 PM.
Less than two hours, Jean considered. That was all the time needed to lose all he held dear… No! What he had taken for granted.
‘One day,’ Jean had told himself, He’d ask her to go out with him. He would ask her hand in marriage, and they would have a family. A business that carried their family’s name…Well, all those ambitions were gone. Along with his dreams, his home town and its streets. That ugly statue in the center of the town square. Yes, it even pained him to see that thing broken on the cobblestones.
Jean awoke from his melancholy and raised his Chassepot rifle. Gunfire! A lot of it. Reinforcements must have arrived!
He rose to his feet and brushed the dust off his gendarme uniform. Maybe they stood a fighting chance after all.
Jean glanced at the dead beast to his side. Its tongue hung out of its lizard-like jaws and something resembling brain matter splattered on the stones beside it.
His only kill. A lucky shot. And this was but a small specimen of the beasts he had seen today. The first beast that went on a rampage was the size of a small church, clock tower included. The long-necked behemoth made the hills tremble, and stone shattered beneath its hooves as it dashed through buildings as if it was but tall grass. There was nothing the gendarmerie could have done.
Nobody knew what the creatures were or from whence they came. They just appeared, as if summoned from thin air by a warlock.
Somehow, Jean didn’t even blame the behemoth. Its cries sounded terrified as if it too had no idea of what just happened. They should have taken those cries as a warning. Because then the behemoth left the confines of the town, the predators came.
A pack of these things, like the one by his feet, ran through the streets, killing discriminately, and tossing the smaller victims about like toys.
When the gendarmerie finally rallied - all six of them - the chief ordered the formation of a fire line. Once the shooting started, they got at least two of them. But these things were as smart as they were fast, and before long they outflanked them. The gendarmes were too slow. Jean himself only learned to march in formation for parades. So when the chief ordered his men to form a circle, Jean got confused instead. Jean didn’t flee. He had taken his distance because he didn’t want to disrupt the formation, expecting the creature to go after him. Instead, they ignored him. If this was deliberate on the part of the monster, he could only speculate. When his fellow gendarmes were cut to ribbons, he fled and went looking for Louise.
When he ran past Pauline’s Pâtisserie, that’s where this creature ambushed him.
The creature had come charging, trying to flank him.
As Jean turned to face it, he just pointed his chassepot in its general direction and fired. By some miracle the impact had blown the side of its skull right off, killing it instantly. Flabbergasted, Jean had observed the monster resembling an emaciated ape, with a bat-like brow. Its eyes were most disturbing of all, swollen milky globules as if it was diseased. Whatever this thing was, these couldn’t have come from this earth. However, he couldn’t help to consider the resemblance it had to the Gargoyles he had seen on churches. Now, it would be hubris to claim those things were but myths.
The more Jean thought about it, the more the world of yesterday seemed like a fairytale. A fairytale, in which monsters did not exist.

Jean made haste toward the sounds of battle, relieved reinforcements had arrived. But the gunfire was deep and rapid, unlike any weapons he knew about. Maybe they brought rotary cannons as they used in America? Or other forms of new artillery, like the Mitrailleuses: the new Imperial Wonder Weapon.
Jean slowed down to reassess his situation. What was he going to contribute with a Chassepot and half a pouch of bullets?
Suddenly, he heard a heavy roar. A man’s battle cry, followed by a high-pitched shriek he had become far too familiar with. Maybe, there was something he could do?
As if possessed, he sprinted through the mounds of debris toward the source of the screaming.
There, amidst the remains of a barbershop, was a man, a soldier, fighting with a gargoyle. But instead of a rifle or bayonet, he kept the monster at bay with a crude club augmented with large nails sticking out of the sides and top like some medieval mace.
As the creature swung its claws at him, the man parried the blow by striking its wrist and continued his counterattack by thrusting the club’s end at the creature’s face. The gargoyle toppled over in agony as the spike impaled its jaws.
Mercilessly, the soldier pulled his weapon free and swung again.
The sound of breaking bones combined with the tearing of sinew made Jean cringe, as teeth flew out of the creature’s shattered mandibles.
The man lowered his gorey weapon and looked up. ‘You still alive?’ he asked curtly with a voice like a bulldog’s. He wore official military equipment, by his uniform was the red and white-striped overall of a prisoner. And then there was the strange collar around his neck that roused Jean’s suspicion.
‘I’m gendarme Mellies!’ Jean cried. ‘What regiment do you hail from?’
The man raised his eyebrows in surprise and began to laugh. ‘You have no clue what is going on, do you?’
The man spat on the ground and said. ‘Don’t leave the town just yet. They shoot everything that leaves… Now, hide someplace until the imperial army arrives.’
‘But, who are you-’
Gesturing Jean to be quiet, the man looked sideways into the distance. ‘Hide!’ he commanded. Then he jumped behind the pile of rubble and disappeared.
Not knowing what to do, or what was happening, Jean looked around in desperation for a place to shelter.
But then he got distracted by a rumbling sound, followed by the thrashing of heavy footsteps approaching at great speed.
Suddenly, masonry burst apart as the wall behind Jean toppled toward him.
In a panic, he dropped his gun and ran as a massive beast, thrice the size of a bison, burst from the ruin. First, it charged on in a straight line. But the moment it spotted Jean, the creature changed its mind. A cloud of dust and debris shrouded the beast as it made a dead man’s turn and gave chase.
Climbing a mound of rubble, Jean could feel the loose bricks tremble as the monster came after him. There didn’t seem to be any point, but Jean climbed on anyway. As he looked over his shoulder, he got a glimpse of the creature. Something from a prehistoric era. A jagged armadillo but with a thick fur covering its flanks. Its head consisted mostly of armor-plated crocodile jaws.
He ran on, gasping for breath until he noticed something. Mechanical roaring and the sharp scent of, of… Pinewood?
The wall in front of him bulged and collapsed before Jean could figure out what was happening. From beneath the dust and falling bricks emerged a jet-black gestalt that raced right at him.
Jean jumped aside, just in time to avoid the oncoming threat, and landed face down in a toppled closet. As he looked up, covered in dusty clothes, he watched the monster pass him by. But It wasn’t of flesh and blood. It was a machine, moving on four short legs like a pig’s. With a somewhat jerky thread, it waltzed through any obstacles like a wrecking ball, to face the beasts armed with two multi-barreled cannons and Mitrailleuses hanging beneath its crab-like body.
The Mitrailleuses launched a stream of projectiles, each leaving a thick trail of white vapor in their wake. It didn’t seem fair when the hail of bullets rained down on the creature, and by the time the barrage ceased, the beast had stopped dead in its tracks.
The strange powder had left a smoking trail burned into the debris, while the bullets singed into the monster’s body. Jean figured it must be some type of chemical. White fumes rose from its carapace as the chemicals dissolved the chitinous plates. But the beast seemed unfazed, and just stood there smoldering as it waited for the diabolical machine to emerge from the cloud.
The two giants took the position, opposing each other.
Jean watched in anticipation to see who would make the first move.
The automaton adjusted its gun’s depression. Those rotary cannons looked larger than Jean had imaged, and would surely make short work of the beast.
But before the cannons fired their first shots, the beast bent its legs in impossible angles, taking the posture of a lizard, and pressing its belly to the ground.
The machine opened fire with its rotary cannons, but it couldn’t depress its gun in time as the beast dashed forward underneath the stream of bullets. Then, the moment it came into range, it lunged at the machine, folding its jaws open in a near 180-degree angle and clenched the chevron-shaped frame. Impressive as it was, it did little to damage the machine. But just when it looked like a stalemate, the beast tilted the automaton backward.
Standing just on its hind legs, the machine was on the verge of toppling over.
Jean held his breath, knowing it would only be a matter of time now. Desperate to help, he looked around. His gun! Ah, merdre. He dropped it. Now, he had nothing but woman’s underwear to fight the beast with.
Then something happened. The scent of pinewood returned as the machine roared louder as if it was winding itself up for a final desperate attack, the roaring of the engine turning into a high-pitched whizzing. But, to Jean’s astonishment, its hind legs came into motion and forced the monster back.
The beast’s jaws lost their grip. Then some of its teeth snapped off and the automaton broke free. As the beast rolled backward, the machine planted its front legs firmly into the ground. What followed was a sudden burst of rotatory cannon fire. By a single volley at the unprotected chest, the beast was gutted and reduced to a smoldering heap of toxic carrion.
The machine, on the other hand, sputtered, and as the engine ceased, it sank through its legs casting up a cloud of dust and debris shattered under its weight.
Jean could feel the heat radiating from the machine as he approached.
The casket’s hatch folded open in four directions, exposing the interior.
Jean barred his eyes. However, the moment the driver’s head appeared from the cabin, he wasn’t sure he was allowed to look. For she was a scantily clad woman in her underwear and some protection on the knees and elbows. Her wet skin reflecting the hot glow of the fire while locks of hair and drenched underwear were glued to her female form.
She spotted him. ‘Oi. You,’ she cried. ‘Little help!’
He got up and rushed to the machine. ‘Everything alright?’ he asked.
‘The machine has overheated,’ she answered. ‘I’ll get burned if I try to climb.’
She had issues with standing on the hot armor as she prepared to jump.
He caught her. But her wet body was slippery, and incidentally, his thumb got stuck beneath her woolen shirt, exposing her flank unwittingly. Embarrassed, he pulled his hands away and waited for the inevitable slap in the face.
But none came.
Instead, she smiled. An odd somewhat sinister smile that took pleasure out of unease. ‘At least buy me a drink first,’ the woman said, straightening her shirt.
‘I beg your pardon, I didn’t-’
‘Let’s go inside,’ she interrupted him and walked off.
‘We can’t stay in the open. And I need some dry clothes.’
‘Ah, right.’
They entered a nearby parlor: Antonés. What had been a comfortable café until this morning was now an unrecognizable ruin that was beyond restoration. But so was the rest of the town. While the young woman waited inside, Jean rummaged through the toppled closet and found a dress and undergarments. He wasn’t proud of rummaging through civilian’s property like a looter, but he was sure the owners would understand - if they were even alive. Jean had no idea anyone had managed to escape. Then he recalled what the soldier said. They shoot everything that leaves… A chill ran down his spine. ‘Mon Dieu…’
Inside the parlor, the woman was sitting hunched backward in her chair at a dust-covered table and an open bottle of Perno in front of her.
He offered her the clothes. ‘You sure you should be drinking that at this time?’
She just looked at him, pressed the bottle against her lips, and chucked. When done, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and offered him the bottle. ‘Want some?’
‘Non… I found you some clothes,’ he repeated.
She grasped the clothes from his hands and walked off without a word. Sifting through the heaps, she tossed aside the dress.
‘You sure you don’t want to wear that?’
Ignoring him, she walked behind the bar and took off her wet clothes standing with her back toward him.
He would have looked away but got distracted by a red wide scar running down the length of her spine. A surgical scar?
She looked over her shoulder. There was that smile again. ‘Like what you see?’
Embarrassed, Jean looked away. ‘You could do that somewhere else you know!’
‘I’m always surrounded by nothing but men,’ she said. ‘Besides, I need to keep an eye on Pepité.’
‘On what?’
She looked outside, at the machine that stood right in the middle of the street like a black grave monument. With the dust settled, he could read the name Pepité written on its right flank beneath a depiction of a rose strongly contrasted against the jet black background.
‘The Chassis d’Battaille!’ she said and pulled down the clean shirt with lace and raffles. ‘I gotta keep an eye on it.’ The shirt for a woman of larger size, hung loosely from her emaciated frame, revealing more than it ought to.
Jean pointed at his neck. ‘So, what’s with the…’
She grabbed the collar. ‘This. It’s a bomb,’ she said non nonchalantly. ‘In case we wander off.’
‘So, you are in a penal battalion?’ concluded Jean.
She walked toward him and looked him dead in the eyes. ‘All you have to do is ask?’
He tried not to get distracted by her low decollete. Not that there was much to start with. She was flat as a board. Still… ‘Don’t you have to watch your machine?’
‘I can do both.’
Jean was getting tired of this. ‘A woman I loved died today,’ he said.
The convict just rolled her eyes. ‘Alright,’ she sighed in defeat and walked away.
‘Do you even care?’ he asked
‘I stare death in the face regularly. How do you think I got my backbone replaced? So, forgive me if I would like to have some fun once in a while.’
He followed her outside. ‘That didn’t answer my question.’
‘I am not here because I want to,’ she said and climbed back on the machine.
‘So, you’re doing this all for thrills?’
She looked down from the hatch. ‘Well, I am not doing it for the gratitude,’ and turned around to sit down.
‘Quell?’ she cried from inside.
‘What’s your name?’
She stuck her head out of the cabin and blinked. ‘…Marie.’
‘Marie… Thank you for saving me!’
She just gave him a glassy look. Then she suddenly pressed her back into the chair and started to close the hatch. She was insulted. He could tell. But why?
He raised his voice. ‘W- What’s wrong?’
Before the door had even closed, the engine started to roar, and the machine rose up.
A stinging sound of a speaker made his face contort. *Out of the way* said Marie’s voice over the speaker.
Jean did as he was told, and watched as the machine headed off toward the gunfire thinking. ‘What was that about?’ Was it because… Jean had thanked her?

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