Day one – 10:38pm
November 1, 2009 § Leave a comment
It smells of oil and sweat and old candy bars, but to her it is a comfort, a sign of life. It is proof that their muscles move, and their stomachs ache with hunger. The memory of her last hot bath is quickly fading from her memory, replaced by the long weeks in between the cold, furtive washings in standing water of questionable quality, with one person always on lookout for the dead things that seem to congregate around bodies of water, as though they know the living need it.
How did we get here? Max is fully awake now, and turns his head towards her. His blue eyes are bright, set deeply into a face older than his twenty-odd years would suggest. He could not have been more than a couple years old when everything ended. What goes through the mind of a child that young? Perhaps his parents were some of the lucky ones who lived in a more isolated place, the north woods or New Mexico. He would have grown up under the cover of forests or deserts, keeping one step ahead of the grey storm front that covered the world. The news read like a weather report until the radio waves went silent.
“What is it?” he asks when he sees that she is wide-awake.
Emily sits up in the bed, her skin oily, the sheets stiff and grimy, and listens. There is a faint scratching at the edge of her hearing, and she sees the cockroach disappear into a crack in the drywall at the base of the wall. She imagines the spaces between the walls crawling with insects in a roiling crackling mass. A part of the cocoon. A ray of sunshine hits the faded white door, fragile and thin on its hinges. Any number of things could be beyond the four walls. Her breath is coming shallow and fast as she imagines the metal handle turning. Scratching insects fill her hears in a crescendo of strings.
“Can you hear it?” she whispers.
There is a slow singsong scrape as Max slides the aluminum bat off the nightstand. The metal surface is stained with flaking brown blood, and indentations mar the smooth curved surface. He never played baseball, it’s one of the few facts she knows about his life, something he let slip as she handed him the weapon for the first time. Usually they don’t talk about the past. It’s easier to pretend the world was always like this, a setting to a terrible horror movie. Just as it is easier to forget that they once traveled with more than just two.
Sometimes she hears the soundtrack to her own life, the drawn-out whine of the violins and the deep echo of the tympani. The rise to forte that will signal the beginning of the end. Her hand fumbles beneath the pillow for the small hand ax. Her heart hesitates until the familiar feel of the metal handle resting in the palm of her hand. She sees the double barrels of a shotgun resting against the wall just where she left it. She slings it across her shoulder and that’s when she hears it; above the noise of insects there is a different kind of sound. A collection of sounds, really, the thump of a heel on carpet, the rustle of clothing against what could be skin or bone, and the soft sound of a body leaning heavily against the wall. Then another, and another. The door, rotten to the core, begins to bow under the weight of bodies, the groan of wood echoed by the patient grunting of those trying to overcome it.
How did they get here? Emily and Max straighten their shoulders at the same time. They do not look at each other; each has eyes only for the sagging door. Of all the questions that haunt her mind, this is the only one to which she holds the answer. She can count back the hours, the days, and the years that led to the course of events that destroyed the future. She lives with it now, and some days it overwhelms her so that tears spill down the hard lines of her face. Max thinks she cries for what she has lost, but she cries for what she has stolen from everyone.
Many years earlier…
The wind swept the city from the north, hurtling through empty streets and filling them with half-turned leaves. Smaller gusts toyed with the swings on playgrounds, phantom children who kicked up wood chips and refused to relinquish the swing set to the night or to the real children, who stared sullenly at the equipment from the depths of their puffy jackets, hood pulled tightly over their eyes.
The adults likewise began to disappear inside wool coats, thick scarves, and knit hats. Heads ducked and eyes closed against the gale, fingers vanished into mittens, which disappeared into coat pockets, until people became no more than scurrying twigs, bent into the wind. With the wind came the cold and the rain, sheets of it that pummeled bare the rest of the tree branches which continued to hold tight to their brightly colored bouquet.
Even the city itself seemed to huddle and shudder against the onslaught. The river that cut through its center thrashed wildly en route to the lake that made up its northern border. The water tested its banks with wet frothy fingers before retreated into the roiling mass, sometimes carrying clumps of wet earth in its wake. Employees in the tallest buildings in the city, not skyscrapers by any stretch, imagined they felt the floors rocking beneath their feet.
The officers on sub-level three of the police department didn’t feel a thing. Mark Mackay was probably the only one who noticed the change in atmosphere as he descended the dimly lit stairwell, counting the floors. The interdepartmental envelope remained firmly tucked under his arm. He was not in the least bit curious about the strange people who worked below the ground level, who came and went at all hours of the day and night, and seemed to have higher access than any of the men with corner offices on the top floor. His fingers were just a bit itchy, that was all. He wasn’t used to the colder seasons of the north.
For all the whispers and rumors, sub-level three looked for all the world like a normal hallway in any part of the police station, lit with the same dim fluorescents, lined with the same innocuous doors with nameplates discreetly to the right. Perhaps the corridor was a bit longer than normal, above ground this would have terminated right where he now stood, a dead end with a small barred window overlooking the scenic parking lot. Looking back and forth, he could see the lower level extended at least twice the length of the aboveground structure.
It wasn’t long before he reached his destination, a blank door with no nameplate identical to all the rest. He rapped boldly on the door and listened as the person inside shuffled some papers and scrapped their chair back. A moment later the door swung wide to reveal a pale tired-looking woman.
“The chief sent me to give this to a Mr…” he wished fervently that he didn’t sound like such a stooge. He had never run errands for the police chief in his life, and was just as surprised to see him in front of his desk this morning, envelope in hand, as this woman now was to see him standing before her. The chief hadn’t acknowledged his existence since he joined the force three months ago, and Mark was quite content to keep it that way.
He double-checked the name printed neatly across the front of the yellowing paper, “Oliver Dunn.” The woman snorted, and as Mark looked up quickly, he caught her hiding a smile.
“Sorry, I haven’t heard his first name in a long time. Come on in, he just ran to get coffee.” She opened the door a bit wider to reveal an office the size of a postage stamp. The two cramped desks facing each other took up half the space. A single grey folding chair sat against the wall.
“I should get back to work. Perhaps I could leave it with you…”
“Oh no, he’ll think I opened it for sure. Have a seat, he won’t be two minutes.” She indicated the folding chair and Mark tried to hide his grimace; his ass hurt just looking at the thing. Reluctantly, he stepped inside and glanced around. The woman had taken the one and half steps back behind her desk, and had spread out her array of papers once again. A single shadow fell across her face from the light on her desk, deepening as she frowned and squinted at the tiny printing. He drummed his fingers on his leg and searched the walls for something to hold his attention. His eyes came to rest on the diploma framed and hanging behind the woman, bearing her name: Emily Walton.
“You’re a psychologist?” she blinked as she looked up from her work, as though she had just been woken up from a dream.
“Hmm?” She followed the line of his gaze, “Oh, yeah. That’s what they tell me.”
“I thought Dr. Stone was the department psychologist. I haven’t seen you around here before.”
“I’m not a clinical psychologist.” She said absently, circling something on her paper. “I’m afraid I would be pretty useless in that regard.”
Word count: 1894