10-06-09 – Things Fall Apart Pt. II

We head east, jogging down the right lane of Langdon.

“What do you think he’s got? Ten minutes? Fifteen minutes on us?” Ted asks.

“Ten,” I reply, “I’d put it at ten.”

He’s had just ten minutes, but ten minutes that could make all the difference. If he’s smart he won’t slow down even with the precautions he put in place. I hope that he’s underestimated us, that he slowed down to a walk as soon as the apartments were out of sight. They’re still burning behind us, the black smoke thickening the atmosphere at our backs.

“So what’s the plan if we do catch him?” Ted whispers. We’re trying to keep a low profile, which means soft voices and soft feet. There aren’t many groaners about, just a few lost floaters drifting around in the alleys. As we head away from the city center the roads get a little clearer, less cluttered with cars and Vespas and bicycles.

“I don’t give a shit about the food, Ted; I just want to teach this asshole a lesson. But safety first, okay? We don’t know if he managed to get a weapon. Play it like we want the food back, that it’s all we’re interested in.”

“You really think he’ll believe that?”

“No, but it might be enough to get him to come in close – close enough.”

We glance down each alley, making sure he hasn’t dodged off the main road. The buildings are so dilapidated, so hollow that it’s unlikely he’d stop here. If he did, we’d spot him through the broken, empty windows. Ted and I speed up again, unwilling to tire.

When we’ve made it about eleven blocks from the apartments we reach a dead end, literally. Right in front of us is a cemetery, a quiet little plot with maybe sixty or so tombstones. In silence we slow to a stop, standing just in front of the low, wrought-iron fence. It would be to jump, but neither of us are making a move.

“It’s not like Night of the Dead, they’re not going to jump out of the graves,” I tell him, but there’s no confidence there, no authority. Ted nods and loops a leg over the fence, dropping down on the other side.

“Allison,” he murmurs, but he doesn’t need to. I’ve seen it too. In the distance, across the field of speckled headstones and weepy, low-hanging trees: a flash of brown, of yellow. It’s Zack, his afghan and the boxes. He’s paused beneath a tree, bent double. Catching his breath probably – running with your arms full of twenty-pound boxes is exhausting work.

I lift a finger to my lips and we slide across the graveyard together, soundless shadows whispering across the spongy ground. The ax feels heavier in my grasp, as if it’s asking me to take a moment and consider my actions. I’m wary of every twig, every crisp leaf, afraid that one snapping branch and Zack will be off and wise to our presence. The tree he’s slumped against is probably ten yards off so Ted and I slink around to the left, trying to keep the trunk of the tree between us and Zack. The problem with an ax is that it’s a short-range weapon; you have to get in close, real close. Suddenly I’m wishing I hadn’t given Janette that last cocktail. I can’t think of anything more satisfying than watching Zack go up in a crackling blaze of flames.

And of course I nearly botch it, stepping on a wayward twig just a few feet from the tree. Zack’s head snapped up and around. The boxes dropped out of his hands as soon as he saw us and he was off, sprinting across the northern edge of the graveyard. All sense of stealth abandoned, Ted and I pursued, chewing up the ground, closing the gap until Ted, springing forward, managed to knock Zack right in the foot. His legs tangled and he tripped, tumbling forward, making a few rotations on the ground before trying to get up and keep running. But it was too late; we had him.

Ted stopped him with a preliminary whack to the ribs, but that’s only play; he’s just getting warmed up. Zack crumples on the ground at our feet, panting and holding his hands up for defense. He stares up at us, his eyes wild with terror. He could see things more clearly now, he could see who we were and what we were prepared to do.

“Please!” he cried, crab-walking away from us. Ted cracked him fast and hard on the knee to slow him down. “God! Just! I’ll do whatever you want, take the food! Take it! Jesus – I’m sorry, okay? I’m so sorry.”

“No you’re not. Not yet.”

His right foot comes away at the ankle. It only takes one sweep of the ax. There’s so much blood, more than I expected, and it rushes out in jerking sprays, pumped hard by his racing heart. He can hardly shout but he starts in on gibberish, stringing nonsense together as he tries to flail out of our reach. We let him go a few feet, watching him squirm away like a mutilated centipede.

“Turns out you’re a star, Zack, or Jack, which is it? We heard all about you on the radio, about how you stole from the university, from a relief effort,” I say, catching up to him. There’s nothing more for him to do, nowhere to go, so it doesn’t really concern me when he tries to inch away. “What the fuck is wrong with you? We’re all in this together you motherfucker.” I punctuate that last word with his other foot. I can see he’s about to pass out so I put the ax down. Ted taps his cheek with the end of the bat.

“We’re going to leave you now, Zack. I do hope you remember my face when they come for you.”

Ted and I turn to go, silent, bound by a deep, profound loathing for what I’ve just done. But as hard as I try, there’s no regret to be found. I can hear him muttering “Please, please” over and over again as he lay in the tall, dead grass. We don’t make it ten feet before we realize our serious mistake. I’m beginning to understand what makes these things tick, and fresh blood certainly does seem to have the same effect as a church bell. They’ve been called, summoned, driven out of hiding by the scent of Zack’s suffering. It makes the bombardment in the apartment look like a trip out for ice cream. They’ve all come, surging toward us from every surrounding block. There’s no cover, no way out, just a solid sea of these things lurching toward us. I know that even if we manage to cut through the first few lines we don’t have the coverage to make it safely through to the street.

Behind us, Zack is dying, really dying, becoming one of them. He won’t get far without feet, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about our predicament. The graveyard suddenly smells like a graveyard should, wet and sandy and sweet with too much decay. Ted and I stand back to back, waiting, letting them come. It’s begun to rain, the clouds have finally opened up and let loose.

I briefly think about climbing a tree, waiting there for help, but I know it’s easier to face them this way then to sit up in a tree like an idiot, waiting for a rescue party that doesn’t exist.

“It’s been real, Ted,” I say, knowing this is the end, this is how we finally go down. “I promise, if you go first I’ll finish you off.”

“Thank you. It’s been a real pleasure, Allie.”

I felt calm, secure in the knowledge that at least I might go down swinging, struggling. I wouldn’t starve to death in a break room or get scurvy and waste away in a university gymnasium, I would die on my feet and with Ted. I feel like I can breathe again, like I can see the end and it really won’t be so bad.

Just as I’m starting to get real comfortable with the idea of dying, just as the groaning and scraping has reached its peak, I hear an earsplitting lot of racket from the street. Gunfire, tons of it, spray after spray of bullets. I reach for my ears deafened. The heads and bodies surrounding us implode, turned to liquid ash by the unbelievable firepower going off in every direction. Through the haze of vaporized goo and tissue I can see a big black form, a truck, and hanging out the back a figure. The truck smashes through the nearest line of groaners, splattering them across our shoes. It’s a truck alright, a gutted land rover with a cargo net for a ceiling. I can’t imagine what kind of mental case drives this thing, but I find out soon enough when the man hanging off the back jumps down to us. He fires off a few rounds into the groaners creeping up behind Ted and me. I’m too stunned to move, awed by the miraculous arrival of these two angels.

“They okay?” the driver shouts, jumping out.

“Seems so,” the other says, yanking off his mask. They’re both dressed in black fatigues and flak jackets. The nearer one has a blue patch on his right sleeve. RAF. He’s got flaming red hair and a ginger beard and pale, pale blue eyes. He looks at both of us, his brow furrowed. “May I ask what you two kittens are doing out here?”

I open my mouth to grunt out an answer, but from behind us comes a terrified scream. It’s Zack, still alive, pulling himself toward us, scooting along on his elbows. The red-haired man takes one look at the ax in my hand and Zack’s severed feet and grabs me by the wrist. It feels like my arm is going to come right out of its socket as he pushes me toward the truck.

“Fucking hell… It’s like that, is it?” he asks. He has an accent, British, but it’s weak. The driver levels his rifle at Ted and nods toward the car.

“Sir? Sir! This isn’t what it looks like,” I tell him, struggling for air. My arm is killing me, twisted and pulsing shot through with pain.

“Yeah I’ve heard that one before,” he says, laughing humorlessly as he tosses Ted and me into the back. “Gone a bit mad, have you? I’d love to shoot you right now and leave you with that poor bastard, but I think I’d rather toss you in lock up and let you think about it for a few days.”

“No! You don’t understand, sir. He stole from us. Those boxes, go look, I swear, he took all our food!” I shout, struggling against his iron grip. Ted tries to say the same but the man cuffs him across the face. “Don’t hit him! What is wrong with you! We’re on your side! Jesus Christ, let us go! We’re not criminals. Why aren’t you listening to me? Listen to me you fucking idiot!”

He raises his hand and I shut my mouth, settling back against the hard steel of the truck. The vehicle jerks to life, the boxes left on the ground, jumbled and opened like a few abandoned toy chests. Zack watches the truck roll away, his hand reaching after us.

They blindfold us and our hands are zip-tied. We’re more or less tossed out of the truck and onto pavement, and then yanked around until we can stand. They march us up a steep hill, no stairs, gun firmly planted between my shoulder blades. They’ve taken my laptop and our weapons and all I can think about is getting that ax back, about persuading this jerk off that I’m not a maniac. I suppose persuading him with an ax might prove just the opposite but I’m too angry and confused to care.

A door swings open, I can tell from the sound of the hinges and the riotous noise inside that’s muted, echoed. They don’t have to say a word; I can make a perfect guess as to where we are: the gymnasium. It’s that sound, the way the words bounce around off the high ceilings and wood floors, the way sneakers squeak and squeal on the shiny surface. The soldiers’ boots clap rhythmically as they push us through the gymnasium. We go through another set of doors, into a cool, damp hallway and then down two short flights of stairs. It feels like a basement, moldy-smelling and claustrophobic.

They take our blindfolds off and leave us in the dark basement in separate rooms. I’m tossed into a little office with a window. The red-haired soldier removes my blindfold but leaves my hands bound. He smells like fireworks and scotch. The table in the corner has a heavy layer of dust and a few blank spaces, voids where a computer monitor and keyboard might have been. Everything smells perpetually wet, ruined, like it was once flooded and never completely dried out. It was probably a coach’s office, but they’ve certainly made it feel like a cell.

They don’t bring food. I can’t sleep. I don’t know if there’s any getting out of this one.

Today

Someone comes to check on me bright and early, before I can really remember where I am or what I’m supposed to be doing.

This is preferable since I can’t sleep anyway. For the last hour or two I’ve been passing in and out of a dream state, so exhausted and scared that I’m not at rest but my brain has stopped actively trying to think of a way out. When the key goes in the lock and I hear the click, I’m expecting to see the red-haired soldier again with his funny beard and wide, sideways grin. But it isn’t him. It’s someone totally different.

“Hello there.”

I stare up at him, my knees tucked tightly to my chest. The zip-tie around my wrists is making them ache like hell and I can feel the skin getting raw and blistered. The pain is momentary because I know this person, somehow I know them. He doesn’t seem threatening, intimidating maybe, but not threatening, even carrying a big fuck-off assault rifle he doesn’t feel aggressive. It might just be how small the room is, but he seems to take up all of it. He’s dressed in the black fatigues too but the front buttons look like they’ve been done up hastily. Some of the snaps don’t match up. I glance at his shoulder and the RAF patch is there too.

“I’m Collin,” he says, and after a pause adds, “I know you can speak, little one. Finn says you’ve got a barb on the end of that tongue. Don’t be foolish,” he says, crouching down, “I’m not here to hurt you.”

That’s when it hits me.

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…

“It’s you.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The Voice, it’s you! The man on the radio! Holy shit, I can’t believe it! It’s you.

Crouched down to my level I can see his face clearly now. He’s older than the other soldiers, probably in his fifties, with graying black hair and a pair of keen, cutting hazel eyes. There’s a deep dent in his chin and his eyebrows are dark and very straight. His eyes smile at the corners, just like the way his lips are smiling at me now.

“You’ve heard me on the radio have you?” he asks, puffing out a laugh.

“He is five-eight, blonde, green eyes, about one hundred and seventy pounds,” I repeat breathlessly. “That’s him, that’s why I’m here. I tried to explain it to your men but they wouldn’t listen.” I can feel my mouth running away with me, the words tumbling out too fast. He puts up a hand, cocking his head to the side.

“I know.”

“You do? That’s great I – wait – you know? Then why am I still in here?”

“I wanted to see you for myself,” he says. His voice is wilder in person, an opal finished off with sandpaper. He has the accent too, like the red-haired soldier, but thicker. “That prick has been the scourge of our supplies for weeks now. We were hours away from offering a reward when you and your friend turned up.”

“How did you know to come for us?” I ask, making sure my poor, aching wrists are in full view.

“A dog actually.”

“A dog – Dapper? So they made it then. Thank Christ.” Relief is sudden and glorious, quenching, and the knot in my stomach relaxes a little. But the man’s face is tensed, fraught with craggy lines.

“They? No, there was only just the one, the dog. He turned up yesterday afternoon and he wouldn’t shut up. We thought maybe he was rabid. He bit my nephew. You met him I think, my nephew. At any rate, we figured stranger thing’s have happened, maybe the dog is agitated for a reason. I sent them out on patrol and that’s when they found you. What happened to your dog, by the way, his tail was singed. It’s almost half gone.”

“No. No, no, god damnit, Janette.”

I can picture it so easily and that hurts.

“Were you expecting someone?” he asks gently. This is when he pulls a gleaming bowie knife out of the belt around his waist and flicks the blade across my zip-ties. I rub at my raw wrists, alternately wincing and sighing with relief.

“My friends… My friends were supposed to come.”

“From what direction?” he asks, suddenly very businesslike and stern.

“East, directly, um, probably down Dayton.”

He stands up, backing a few steps away. That’s more than enough, he doesn’t have to tell me that Dayton is dangerous or swarmed or whatever. I’m sure what he has to say next will sting so I prepare for it. This is something I’m learning to do, hardening myself against the blows that come day after day.

“Dayton… I’m sorry, Dayton isn’t passable. There are so many cars… They tried to set up a barricade at one point but that only made it worse.”

Janette must have panicked and thrown the cocktail. Poor Dapper.

“Am I in trouble?” I ask, staring down at the floor. It helps to concentrate on the pits in the cement, on the grooves worn into the concrete by a chair or desk. What if I run into their families? What if I have to be the messenger?

“No, no, nothing like that,” he says, laughing again. It’s a big, full, boisterous laugh that fills up the little room, testing its boundaries. “I’ll have a word with my nephew… I apologize on his behalf. He can get a bit… Well, overzealous.”

“I noticed.”

“Sorry about the wrists,” he says, offering a hand. I take it, pulling myself up, finding that I’m starving and weak. He sees me wobbling, listing to the right. “We’ll get you some food and a place to rest.”

“And Ted? My friend?”

“He can come too. And what should I call you?”

“Allison. My name is Allison.”

I stop at the door. My feet are leaden and aching and I can feel every tug and pull of the tendons in my ankles and wrists. I just want to drop down right there and sleep for days. Collin waits for me, watching me fixedly from his great height. For some reason I can’t meet his eyes; I don’t want to, I don’t want him to see how full of anger and disappointment I am. This is not a good introduction. This is not who I am.

“It’s not guilt,” he murmurs, and I can hear the soft rhythm in his voice, the same sound that would float out of the radio speakers like a childhood ghost.

“What?”

“It’s not guilt, what you’re feeling right now. It’s shock.”

“Oh.”

“There’s an important difference: Shock wears off eventually. Guilt, I’m afraid, does not.”

“And you would know this because?”

“Let’s call it personal experience, shall we?”

But I’m not smiling, I’m not giving him the reaction he wants. “You killed a man,” he says, “That tears the soul. But it’s just a tear, Allison, and tears can mend.”

“Stick to reading the classics, old man.”

“I see Finn was right about your winning charm,” he replies, but there’s a bounce, a hint of laughter to his voice. “But I’m sorry to tell you that you won’t frighten me. I’ve taught know-it-alls and geniuses and idiots your age for many years. Nothing surprises this old man.”

“You’re a professor?” I ask, inching toward the door.

Was a professor, yes, of astronomy. Undergraduate work at Trinity, PhD at Oxford.”

“A professor of astronomy who served in the Royal Air Force?”

“We all have our hobbies.”

Ted is with me now. They’ve given us hot food and chamomile tea and stale cookies. There’s a village of tents in the arena and Collin managed to track one down for us. Collin estimates there are maybe one hundred and fifty people in the gymnasium with more arriving every day. Dapper couldn’t be happier; he doesn’t seem to miss the other half of his tail. He smells a bit like charcoal and chemicals, but we’ve been given the go-ahead to bathe him tomorrow. The generators here produce so much power that they’ve managed to hook up a few hand-pump showers and water heaters.

Ted is almost asleep. His recitations of chemistry compounds has degraded into incoherent mumbling. I want to sleep, I want badly to rest and to forget, but every time I close my eyes I see Janette, I see Phil, I see Matt and even Zack. I don’t want to regret or hate, I want to be the person I was before all of this started: Allison Hewitt, Graduate Student, Student of Literature, Faulkner Enthusiast, Field Hockey Player, Daughter, Normal Person.

Those titles don’t exist anymore. Collin is no longer a professor, Ted is no longer a biochemist and I’m no longer buoyed and protected by simplicity. I don’t even know who Zack was, what he loved to do, what he was in his former life. He told me he ran track, that he liked to golf and that he was applying for an internship at a environmental issues magazine. Any of those things could be true and any of those things could be false.

Collin says I shouldn’t regret what I did. He says it will only hurt for a few days, a few weeks. I think he’s wrong. I think it will hurt forever. I think the sting will endure past all tolerance or understanding and it will follow me until I either learn to be someone else or I die.

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