That I’m a murderer does not particularly bother me… That Ned had to see that, that I frightened him… If there were time for thought, for pause, then I know I would crack. From the moment we leave our prisons behind I can feel him closing in on me, staying close, hovering over me like I’m still in danger of dropping dead. He senses, as I do, a disturbance in the Force. This is a bad place, a very bad place, and we’re only now going to discover the thick of it.
“Tell me it’s going to be okay.”
“It’s going to be okay.”
“Now tell me we’re going to get our asses out of here alive.”
“Allison, I’m getting your ass out of here alive.”
We have the flashlight but I’m afraid to use it. I know we don’t have long. Soon someone will realize that Helga hasn’t returned. Her blood is still caked beneath my fingertips, ground into the cracks on my palms as we move as quietly as we can through the murky darkness of the basement. Without a an ax or a gun I feel naked, but the baseball bats we find are covered in foam and nothing can be fashioned into a respectable weapon.
I trip over a step and find the stairwell leading up and out of the basement. There’s a door at the top of the stairwell faintly glowing from a crack of light. At the bottom of the door I see the shape of feet moving slowly back and forth, back and forth. We take a moment, huddling just on the other side of the door; if she’s facing away we might have a chance to get the upper hand, but if she’s watching the door then chances are we’re screwed.
Holding my breath, I slowly reach out and nudge the door open. By some miracle, the hinges are silent and the door opens a few inches. She’s facing the other direction, a soda can dangling from her left hand and a pistol tucked into the back of her high-waisted jeans. I recognize the pistol; it’s the kind we’ve been using for target practice at the arena. It makes me wonder how long they’ve been planning this exodus, how long they’ve been stealing supplies and scheming. At what point did they decide that just holding prayer circles wasn’t enough? On what day did they decide to abandon faith and brotherly love for zealotry?
I yank the pistol out of her waistband. She gives a startled, helpless little yelp but when she spins and finds the pistol aimed at her face she gets quiet real quick. I can’t even imagine what I must look like to her: my hair matted with sweat and blood, a laptop bag strapped across my chest, my hands and face streaked with the last gasping life of another human being. I can already feel the deep, aching bruises forming on my back and chest. I’m more or less sure that one of my ribs is cracked because the pain there is constant, radiating upward toward my throat in red hot waves.
“Where’s my dog?” I ask. She opens and closes her mouth a few times. She’s wearing a silver chain around her neck with a cross and a few little people made out of pewter. There are three little people charms, one for each child maybe. I take the pistol and grasp it by the cold barrel and let it fly. The grip hits her right across the cheekbone.
God I’ve always wanted to do that…
She flinches but Ned is silent and still at my side. I can feel his focus, his attention directed entirely at her, at our objective.
“I’ll ask you one more time,” I whisper, pulling the slide back on the gun, just to illustrate a point really. “Where’s my dog?”
“H-he’s in the cafeteria at the end of the hall.”
“You sure about that?”
“Yes, one hundred percent.”
“And his kids?” I ask, nodding toward Ned. Her gray eyes slowly shift toward him and a tremor starts in her chin as if suddenly afraid. I raise the gun barrel, making sure it’s level with her nose. “Answer me or I’m sure you’ll regret it. One hundred percent sure.”
“D-down the hall, east wing,” she says, pointing to our right.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Molly, Molly Albertson.”
“Sorry about this, Molly.” I hit her again, much harder this time and she crumples against the wall. Ned let’s out a long, loud breath and I do too. I didn’t realize I had been holding it in. He puts a hand on my shoulder and I find that my whole body is one singing loop of tension.
“You any good with that thing?” he asks.
“No,” I reply, “Not really. Give me a good solid ax any day of the week.”
“Then give me that, you big baby.”
Ned takes the pistol, and just from the way his fingers wrap around the grip I know it’s best that he has it. He checks the magazine and frowns.
“Full clip,” he says, “I doubt she even knew how to fire it.”
“We can boo hoo about that later. Kids first, dog second, conscience a distant third.”
It’s eerie, this place that should be a sanctuary, this graveyard of a building that should be filled with laughter and learning. It’s a relief that the halls aren’t crawling with more people like Molly, but at the same time I can’t help but wonder where everyone is. The feeling of wrong, pure, bone-chilling wrong returns and I clench my fists to keep a shudder from rocking through my spine. We crouch as we slink along the walls; why do we crouch? If they see us they see us but for some reason this makes me feel stealthier. We pass classrooms, open doors, closed doors, and each room is painted in a different color theme – red, blue, green, indigo, daisies, roses, clouds… But everywhere there’s evidence of struggle, of death. There should never be blood on the floor of a preschool but here it’s on the walls, the floor, the ceiling, sprayed in every direction as if Jackson Pollock had a massive, day-long seizure.
I let Ned go first since he’s got the gun. Every time we pass a classroom I experience a sickening jolt of fear, expecting anything and everything to burst out from behind the toppled desks and piles of miniature chairs. But no one comes for us. There’s nothing in the hall to focus on, but far ahead, at the end of the hall, I can hear a bizarre sound like a drum.
“Kumbaya Hour at the loony bin,” Ned mutters, shaking his head. We’ve almost gotten to the end of this corridor and so we begin checking every room carefully, searching for any small sign of Mikey and Evan. I want badly to believe that they’re fine but the empty halls and the strange, pulsing drums further on are giving me an inescapable feeling of dread.
“You okay?” Ned asks.
“Me? Yeah, fine. Why?”
“You’re just… Breathing awfully heavy, that’s all.”
“Sorry. Lungs hurt.”
“You are one lucky son-of-a-bitch.”
“My point stands…”
We reach a fork, with two hallways going in opposite directions. Something smells like burning, not the pleasant wood-smoke you smell outside in the fall but bitter, acrid, like burning plastic or singed hair. It’s coming from down one of the halls and a pair of big, steel doors that look like they lead to a cafeteria or gymnasium. The distant, echoing beat and emptiness of the hall is making me nervous, panicky, and I can’t help but glance in every direction as we try silently to decide which way to go.
“Look, let’s just go that way, if we get to the doors and there’s no sign of your kids then we can turn back,” I say. Ned is sweating, a dark ring forming around the collar of his tee shirt.
I don’t know what it is about preschools but they’re bizarre, especially when you can feel the weird unrest of angry souls flickering around you. Why are little kids so scary? They’re just children. Maybe it’s our expectation that they’ll be innocent and pure; corrupt that expectation and adults squirm like they’ve sat on a pile of snakes. There are no devil children here but there’s the indelible presence of eyes, many eyes pressing and watching.
We keep checking doors, our movements becoming quicker, sloppier as we become desperate to find Evan and Mikey. I can feel Ned getting more and more nervous, and I know he’s wondering if Molly fed us a bunch of BS. The smoke and the smell is nauseating, the air thickening with a dark, ashy fog. We check room after empty room, coat closets and maintenance lockers and then finally, at last, we find Evan and Mikey in a teacher’s lounge just a few feet away from the big steel doors that are shut, the smell and the smoke belching out from the cracks along the floor and ceiling.
It’s a heavenly sound, so simple but filled with enough relief and excitement to make your heart spin. The boys give me a hug after they wrestle out of their father’s arms. Ned’s face is wet and he turns away to wipe the tears off his cheeks. The boys are a little dirty and scraped up but otherwise healthy.
“Are you two okay?” I ask.
“Mommy said we had to stay here,” Mikey informs us. He says it with so much guilt, so much doubt that Ned nearly turns away again.
“It’s okay, we’re going to get you guys out of here,” I tell them, ruffling Evan’s hair. “Your dad gave us permission.”
“But Mom will be so mad,” Evan protests, both arms locked around his father’s knee.
“True. But not nearly as mad as I’m going to be.”
It was bound to happen eventually.
I recognize her at once. It’s like Hitler or Genghis Khan or Emperor Palpatine… You take one look at them and know they’re the one in charge. She was one of the outspoken ones, one of the women determined to oust Collin in favor of a new regime. I think her name is Sadie or Sally, I can’t remember, I just know I’ve seen her cold, calculating eyes before and her bedraggled perm. She’s not much taller than I am and thin, with an unpleasant hollowness in her cheeks where there was once jolly plumpness. I can see Corie standing behind her, lingering in the doorway. The tragedy of her life, of her mistake, is written plainly on her sad, pretty face.
She has a sawed-off shot gun, undoubtedly another gem stolen from Collin. It’s pointed directly at little Evan.
I think of Collin, of Ted, of Dapper, of how close we came to getting out and finding a way back to them.
“Put the gun down,” she says, staring at Ned. He looks to me and then at his children. I don’t want him to drop it but I know deep down that he has to, that he will.
Ned slowly kneels, placing the gun on the floor and then standing back up with his palms open and flat. Sadie or Sally smiles and begins to back out. She motions for us to follow, the gun still pointed at Evan. I know she’s probably not all that strong, but I’m weak, I know it, I can still feel Helga’s shoulder blades crushing my lungs. If I just had a little more strength…
“Easy now, easy,” she says.
When we get out into the hallway the steel doors are open and a dense cloud of black ash hits me right in the face. I can’t help but cough; the stench is overwhelming. Sadie or Sally flicks the gun at us and Ned and I walk into the room, which I see now is the old cafeteria. The long, gray tables have been pushed to the side. The seats, attached to the lunch tables, are alternating blue and pale green. Gradually, figures stamp themselves into the scenery, blooming out of the wall of smoke. They’re too distant to recognize but they form a sort of wall, their backs to us.
My eyes follow the rolling of the smoke to the back part of the cafeteria where they’ve fashioned a makeshift fire pit. A few tables are on their sides, forming the walls of the pit where old desks and cabinets are piled and burning. My vision begins to adjust and I see Renny standing near the wall of Wives, a gun aimed between her shoulders.
“Bring her here!”
Corie drags Evan and Mikey away, ignoring their protests, turning them away from us. That’s not a good sign.
Renny joins us, her lips a firm line of disgust.
“What’d you all do?” she asks me, smirking.
“Shut up,” Sadie or Sally says, waving the shot gun around like it’s a scepter. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see that she doesn’t know what she’s doing with the gun, but fortunately for her the blast radius on that thing means a blind monkey could take you down. At this range, there’s no hope for us.
Renny, Ned and I shoulder up together. Sadie or Sally paces in front of us, the gun clutched tightly in her knobby hands. She looks trigger happy, ready to explode. The heat is incredible, rolling off of the fire pit in thick, clotted waves. I can’t pin exactly what the smell is, but it’s definitely not barbecue. The drumming is coming from in front of the line of Wives, where a few women sit cross-legged, beating on the bottoms of buckets. Nearby there are a handful of women dancing, throwing their hands in the air and jumping as if in religious ecstasy. There are, strangely enough, no men to be found, not even a bound and coerced one.
“Change of plans?” I ask, noting the distinct lack of an Adam.
“He was… Uncooperative.”
“Good boy,” Ned whispers.
“I take it he’s the charming odor we’re experiencing now? L’air de Infidel?”
“He is indeed,” she replies, smacking the barrel of the shotgun gleefully with the flat of her palm. “A warning to you all, a hint of what’s to come if you don’t repent and kneel to us now. And you,” she hisses, rounding on Ned, “Will rethink your position.”
He laughs, bitterly, his lips quirking to the side. “You crazy broads just don’t get it, do you?”
She raises the butt of the gun, apparently to strike him, so I jump in to spare him the inconvenience. “Look, bitch, just toss us on the bonfire already before it dies down. And throw some kerosene on that shit because it’s going to take more than a pansy-ass flicker like that to shut us up.”
“You fools, you… you unworthy, irredeemable sinners!” Sadie or Sally says, sighing and rolling her eyes, “You don’t know what you’re passing up. You could remake the world with us, reform this imperfect, immoral world and create a place of wonder, a paradise. God has given us a chance. He has seen our greed, our lust, our corrupt hearts and He has sent a scourge to destroy the disbelievers. It is a test, a divine test, a test to seek out those who would be Warriors of God and the protectors of His new and holy children.”
“Answer’s still no, bitch,” Renny says, crossing her arms across her chest.
“Isn’t this cozy? Now I know just how Han felt before being pushed into the Sarlacc Pit,” I say, “So, you know, check that one off the To Do Before I Die list.”
“I think the smell is actually worse here,” Ned adds. For all his bluster he’s still sweating, I can feel his shoulder getting damp as it rests against mine. But then again, he could just be perspiring from the inferno up ahead. Behind us, I can hear Evan throwing a tantrum and Corie trying to shush him.
“Could I get a dash of garlic powder before the main event?” I ask, hoping that Sadie or Sally will get distracted and get close to us or get frazzled enough to drop the gun. It just takes one distraction, one well-aimed dart…
“Oh,” she says, laughing, her bosoms shaking beneath her stained Tommy Hilfiger sweater. “Oh you aren’t going in the fire. No, that death is too quick, too easy for filth such as you. The time has come. Let the damned eat the damned. Let them free!”
Now, I half-expected a herd of angry mothers to come storming out to tar and feather us, but I have to admit, Sadie or Sally surprised me, truly, genuinely shocked the hell out of me. There’s twisted, and then there’s just god damn fucked.
I can barely hear Ned above the ramming of my own heart. From a side door there’s a sound, a lurching like enormous metal gears grinding together in protest. I squint through the smoke and see a lunch table being dragged forward, letting the doors it was barring swing open. And swing open they do, letting in a tremendous flood of zombies. There are groaners alright, but they’re so weak, so starved for flesh that they look like little more than skeletons with bits of skin and entrails sticking to their frames. They immediately head toward us, limping across the linoleum, grunting and shrieking, their bony feet making awful scraping noises on the floor. I see that there a few people sitting near the doors, their hands bound; they must be like us, nonbelievers, sinners. Ned goes completely still, his shoulders clenching so tightly that I can actually feel his muscles contract into one solid knot of fear. I have no idea how Sadie or Sally plans to swing this and save herself but she’s got that gun trained on us and a look on her face like she’s just cracked a home run out of the park.
Then I see that the Wives have been busy making a little fence, like a gate used for herding pigs or cattle, so the undead are headed just for us, for Ned, Renny and me. Now I know Ned is sweating for real because I can smell his perspiration.
“Fuck,” Renny whispers, “Fucking shit.”
They’re quick with the tables and now I can see that there are more Wives congregating at our side, hemming us in with the tables. They’re making a coral, a coral winding around and leading us back toward the fire. A few of the undead have toppled over the barrier and into the bonfire, roaring as their scalps ignite. I know I should be thinking, coming up with some way out of this, but my mind is racing uselessly, the wheels in my brain spin in the mud. And all I can focus on is Ned and his reeky arm pits and the eyes of the prisoners being torn apart, their white, staring eyes and ravaged bodies. The undead aren’t slowing down, they just roll over whatever is in their path, consuming, tearing, surging forward. I try to shrug away, I don’t want to watch, but all there is to see are the Wives building their coral of doom and us shuffling away as slowly as we can to avoid provoking Sadie or Sally.
I just keep staring at this one woman, this woman with a blank face and mean, twisted hands and the way she holds the table like it’s her sworn duty. And I can smell Ned and hear Renny swearing under her breath and see this stupid woman with her ugly, stupid flannel shirt and it makes me think of Matt… Of all people, at the moment of my death, I didn’t think it would be Matt, the assistant manager, the nerd with his conspiracy theories and his flannel shirts…
And it hits me. So simple, so stupidly simple…
“You!” I shout, pointing at Sadie or Sally, “Tell me, are those the damned?”
“Yes, the damned, of course they are. The damned!” she screams.
“And if you were to be one of them, would you then be damned too?”
“You can’t save yourself, girl. Judgment is now.”
“Really? Well, good job. You win at the judgment game I guess.”
“Win? This is the wrath of God Himself, not a game!”
I stumble a few feet toward her, hoping and hoping for one last chance… It’s a long shot, but anything is worth a try with bonfire looming and a flood of undead monsters bearing down on you and your friends…
“You’ve killed us all,” I say, throwing up my hands, I point at the edge of the bonfire where a few undead are still smoldering. “The ash.”
“What? What ash?”
“Their ash, you moron. The damned. Don’t you know even the first fucking thing about… about anything? Just breathing it in, getting their tissue in your lungs is enough. You haven’t just damned us, you’ve damned yourself.”
It takes a moment, but the idea dawns on her and her face, her once-smiling face, falls.
“I don’t believe you,” she says, raising an eyebrow. The gun is leveled at my face and I can feel the sweat falling down my temples in fat, splashing beads. Ned is close, so close…
“Ouch!” he shouts. To be fair, I did stomp on his foot. But then he smartens up, catches my meaning, and stays doubled over. Then he begins to moan, clutching his head, covering his ears and then lurching forward, spitting up on the floor. He’s not half-bad at it. Renny joins in, bless her, and clutches her throat, her eyes rolling back, showing the whites as she grunts and spasms.
“Look!” I bellow, letting the fear shake my limbs, “Look what you’ve done!”
“No!” she screams, her eyes wild as she gapes at Ned, who has gone so far as to scratch at his own face, writhing on the floor. I make a mental note to alert the Academy. “It can’t be! It can’t! Oh Jesus, oh Lord, how could you abandon me, how?”
She’s begun to cry, to sob, and I know that now is my chance if ever there was one.
“No,” I say, taking a step toward her. “You abandoned him.”
The shot gun is in my hands and it feels good. All the lessons, all the target practices comes flooding back in one racing, heated rush of adrenaline. My fingers know what to do, they know how to cradle the weapon, how to aim and squeeze the trigger and brace for the recoil. It kicks like a god damned stallion on steroids but I stay steady; my chest is so sore and achy that it’s tempting to drop the gun. The noise is amazing, like a rocket ship firing directly out of my ear…
Her face is gone, most of it anyway, but the look of surprise and horror stays on what’s left of it.
Ned is fast, smart, and takes the gun out of my hands and begins to fire, not randomly, but carefully, taking out the closest undead and then firing warning shots at any Wives that get too close. Their aim is terrible and the smoke is so thick that they can’t get a decent shot off anyway. Renny and I vault over the tables and run for Evan and Mikey, sweeping them into our arms without a thought. The doors are already open and we run into the hall, gasping for cleaner air. I turn, looking for Ned and see that he’s trying to drag Corie away from the undead, away from the gunfire and the smoke. But she won’t go, she’s dug her heels into the floor. I see it in her face, in her posture…
She’s made her decision.
A lot of the rest is fuzzy, a blur. I know we ran, I know we could hear the undead on our heels, chasing us, following us through the halls. I know the pure rush of relief carried me through, keeping me from collapsing from exhaustion and pain. And I know Renny took the lap top bag for me, wore it and kept it safe, unburdening me as we ran through the school. We found Dapper in an art classroom on the other side of the building, hungry, scared but ready with a wagging tail for us.
And I know that when we got outside we went immediately to the stolen van. I remember lying down on the back seat, Dapper licking my hands and face, Mikey and Evan sitting in silent shock in the seats nearby. And finally, I remember the sound, the cry of anguish as Ned rounded the corner that would take us home, to the arena, to Collin and Ted and Finn. It made me sit up, that sound, it made me forget the pain for a moment.
We looked together, no one saying a word, we looked at the campus, at the arena, in flames.