10-06-09 – Things Fall Apart

Yesterday

It’s not that I’m morbid really – I just have a healthy outlook on death. Even as a child I didn’t see what the big deal was. I had confronted death early on; my dad and older brother died in a car crash when I was three and a half. It was then that I learned the phrase: “They didn’t suffer” meant something, but the phrase “They’ve gone to a better place” did not. I didn’t for a moment, even at a very young age, believe that wherever they had gone was better than being alive and with us. It seemed insulting to me that they could say that, that strangers, even well-meaning ones, could smile and pat my head and imply that my dad and brother would rather be in heaven than with Mom and me.

And so I learned an important lesson: Things were and then they simply stopped being. I didn’t agree with the popular opinion that death was something to get bent out of shape about. This was a trait considered charming and amusing by my mother until I entered preschool. It was there that my mature response to death became a source of unending embarrassment for my mother. For me? Not so much.

I was, however, sent to the principle’s office no less than five times for “harassing” Martin Knutson. Martin had unbelievably bad luck when it came to pets, and he often arrived at home room with red, tear-filled eyes. Lucky the goldfish had died, later it would be Penny the rabbit and Selma the crested lizard. I have my own theories about why so many animals met their downfall in the Knutson household, but the plain truth of it was that Martin was spending (in my opinion) an inordinate amount of time blubbering and sobbing over these lost animals. On several occasions my six-year-old self attempted to discuss the nature of death with Martin, who, when I asked him about the latest casualty, a hermit crab called Jenny, he asked: Has Jenny gone to a better place?

“No, Martin,” I said, “Jenny has gone to the sewers.”

For this I was taken to have a talk with the Vice Principle, a very stern and knobby woman who wore crisp, neon-colored suits with wide shoulder pads. She sat behind an enormous oak desk, the kind of furniture meant to inspire fear and awe in youngsters. I had been afraid on our other meetings, but I was so accustomed to these chats that the desk, and Mrs. Morrison, no longer bothered me.

“Do you know why you’re here?” she asked, tenting her fingers as if we were in a very serious board meeting.

“Because I told Martin the truth,” I replied.

“No,” she said, drawing out the word impatiently, “You’re here for upsetting Martin.”

“By telling him the truth,” I added, thinking she had simply forgotten to add that bit.

“Allison, I just don’t know what we’re going to do with you.”

Uh-oh, that was never a phrase you wanted to hear as a child, not ever. It meant, ostensibly, that you were so wildly out of control and beyond help that you would probably be taken away from your mother and placed in a hideous Victorian orphanage with ghosts and strict, gray-haired ladies that smacked you black and blue with rulers. That was the type of phrase that made me more likely to cooperate and I suspect Mrs. Morrison knew this.

“You’ll apologize to Martin, do you understand?”

I did, and I apologized, not for telling him the truth but for hurting his feelings. I outright refused to apologize for telling him Jenny’s actual fate, it just didn’t seem right to lead him on like that. In private, my mother agreed that I was right but she also asked me to make some new friends. Martin Knutson and his vast graveyard of dead pets were too much of a liability.

Upon reflection, perhaps my attitude toward death wasn’t healthy at all but problematic. I’m finding out that it’s just as troublesome as an adult as it was in childhood. No one here wants to be lectured for mourning their loved ones and I’d be hypocrite to tell them to cheer up and move on. Even the deplorable phrase “they’re in a better place now” is totally inapplicable. We all know where they were and what they were doing and it’s certainly not better than being alive.

But I’ve reversed that stance on death. I no longer think that it’s okay, that it’s not something to get worked up about. We lost one of our number, one for sure and maybe more. Everything is uncertain now. Everything I tried so hard to do is undone.

Holly and I started in on Phil’s birthday cake bright and early. We weren’t sure how many attempts we would need so we decided that it would be best to leave the entire morning and afternoon for trial and error. Don’t ever attempt to cook a cake on a Hibachi. Just don’t. Anyway, we did. The batter part of it was easy, really, since Ms. Weathers was apparently a proficient baker. Flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, vegetable oil… All of that was easy to find. Eggs and milk were trickier, but they magically appeared at mid-morning.

Zack came into the kitchen, breathless, his arms full to overflowing with two cartons of milk and a broken off carton of eggs.

“Where the hell did you find that?” I asked, watching him carefully drop the milk and eggs down onto the counter. He wiped the back of his head with his sleeve. He was sweating despite the intense cold that persisted everywhere – outside, inside, in your bones. His green eyes flashed with mischief as he nodded vaguely toward the window.

“Out there.”

Out there? You’re telling me you went out to get this shit for a birthday cake? Are you insane?”

“You needed them, right? You can’t make a cake without eggs and milk.”

“Well… Yeah, but… Christ…”

“Come on,” he says, touching my shoulder, “Don’t be like that. I’m fine, see?” He turns a cheeky little pirouette, the afghan bundled around his shoulders swinging out like a cape. Holly is staring wide-eyed at him and I can’t say I blame her. To be out there, alone, among the undead…

“Are you sure you’re okay? You didn’t get scratched? Bitten?”

“I’m fine,” he repeats, his smile fading. “A thank you would be nice.”

“Thank you,” I blurt out, shaking my head at his stunt, “but don’t do that again.”

He leans in and kisses my cheek. His beard rasps and it makes me go cold all over. Holly moves closer; I don’t notice it until she’s practically breathing down my neck. Zack disappears down the hall and we’re left standing there, straining to breathe, to say something. I can’t even imagine him darting between the overturned cars, the fallen lamp posts, the broken mail receptacles… It seems absurd, impossible, and all of it for a cake.

“Are there any clean bowls left?” I ask Holly, turning away from the hall. I don’t want her to see how shaken I am but it’s too late.

“We can take a break,” she tells me gently, rubbing my back. I want to collapse into her and I don’t know why, I don’t know why my legs suddenly feel like jelly. I look across the countertop and bar to the living room where there’s still a gaping hole in the wall. Holly has decorated the entire room with different colors of electrical tape, measuring out patterns, lines, stripes. It looks like a mosaic, like a Greek bath.

“No way, third time’s the charm, right?” I say, trying to brighten up. We dump one of our failed experiments into a plastic bag and measure out the sugar, flour and salt again. I can see her hands are shaking as she cracks two eggs into a bowl and whisks in a few cups of milk. I make frosting out of milk and powdered sugar and set it by the window to keep it cool. From the bedroom I can hear the radio. Ted has kept it on all morning, fascinated, obsessed with listening. They’ve started playing music intermittently, mostly cheerful, inoffensive oldies. No one needs The Cure right now.

Phil, Matt and Janette are playing cards next door. I can hear them through the wall, laughing, shouting, throwing bad hands down on the coffee table. Everyone is dedicated to keeping Phil in high spirits, distracting him from the fact that he’s spending his birthday in a gutted, stolen apartment eating a cake made on a Hibachi. From down the hall I can hear The Everly Brothers crooning about dreams. Holly and I have opened the curtains in the kitchen and living room to let in some of the overcast, milky light. There’s a threat of rain in those clouds, a dark heaviness casting long shadows down the street.

“Should I use the whole bag of chocolate chips?”

“Hm? Yeah, go for it,” I say, turning to see Holly holding the open bag above the batter bowl. “But go easy on the walnuts.” Ted spent the morning organizing our food stuffs, carefully putting them together in neat rows, arranging them in a few labeled boxes so we can easily find corn, beans and fruit without searching through the pantry. Holly and I dodge the boxes as we move around the kitchen. Dapper makes himself a nuisance as usual, tangling in our feet as we try to bake.

Zack joins us to help with the actual baking. We pour the batter into a deep pan and light one half of the grill, covering the cake with foil and leaving it to cook on the unlit side of the grill. Zack’s theory is that the heat will be just enough to cook the batter without burning the sugar and the foil should keep out most of the smoky flavor. For the next hour we take turns checking under the foil, poking the top with a fork. Despite our best efforts, the damned thing smokes out the entire living room and we wade through a thin haze of burnt vanilla smell. In the next apartment they can smell the burning and make a lame attempt to keep it out by taping newspaper over the hole.

There are no birthday candles so we frost the cake and arrange a ring of candles around the pan. It looks a little black on top but the middle seems okay. Janette and Matt bring Phil in and we sing “Happy Birthday,” huddled around the candles for warmth. The room is colder than usual and this is when I notice the kitchen window is wide open. Someone must have opened it to air out the smoke.

As we sing, I can see Holly is about to cry. It reaches me too but I hold it at bay, feeling too cold, too suddenly afraid to find the depth of feeling. Phil clasps his hands to his chest, his stained polo shirt replaced with a big zipped-up pull over. We’re all wrapped in blankets, a group of mismatched druids holding our sad and arcane ritual, singing and shivering and glowing in the candle light.

Phil gets the first piece. Matt chants: Speech, speech! but thankfully Phil ignores him. He doesn’t need to say anything about the cake, about the sentiments; we can all intuit his gratitude by the big, dopey smile on his face. I wish he would shave; he’s starting to look like a cave painting. I can feel Zack watching me as we pass out the slices of cake and spread out around the kitchen and living room to eat. No one has anything to give Phil but we start up another card game. I pick the chocolate chips out of a piece of cake and give it to Dapper, who eats it all in one bite. Zack, Holly and I sit out. I don’t know why he’s watching me, why his eyes are so intense, so persistent.

The cake is gone and the first game of poker is over when it happens.

I didn’t see most of it, not really, just a blur, a scream, a crash of dishes and silverware. When I first hear Holly cry out I think she’s burned herself on the grill, but when I turn to help her there’s something wrapped around her neck, something brown and mangy, like a rotten muffler. Dapper lunges for it, but I grab him by the collar and drag him back; if he bites that thing he’s history too.

But it’s not a mink or a fox, it’s a squirrel and when it leaps off of Holly it takes a trail of blood with it. Without thinking the ax is in my hands and I’m chasing after the thing, cornering it against the couch and the closet. It’s not alive, it’s not normal; I can see the shiny wet skull through the torn fur of its head and both ears are missing, chewed away. The ax takes it in the middle, separating it cleanly in half. I take off its head too, just to be sure.

I expect more talking, more shouting, but when I return to the others there’s only silence. They’ve formed a tight ring around the struggling girl on the floor, the futile clawing at her own neck. It’s a small bite, just a little tear in the skin, no bigger than a bad fingernail scratch, but it’s punctured her veins, and we can all see that. Already her eyes are changing, becoming greenish, her skin molting its healthy pink color right before our eyes.

Ted rushes forward, holding her, whispering her name over and over. I put out my hand, I want to pull him back, to save him before she takes him too. But there’s no fight in her yet. He stands, pulling her gently to her feet. Holly looks at me, we meet eyes, I stare deep into her and watch as she stops recognizing me, as the cruel unknowing slips over her face like a Halloween mask. We break the circle and Ted goes past with Holly limping, slumped against his shoulder. I can’t see his face, he won’t let me see it.

I offer him the ax. He’s gained a little weight. It suits him. There’s a hardness to his cheekbones and a square, iron set to his jaw; I see it clearly now. He’s growing up right there, right on the stained, faded carpet of a house we don’t own, of a life we no longer recognize.

I trail them as they go to the door, out into the hall. The door slams in my face. None of us has said anything, not even goodbye. I worry for a moment that Ted will do something stupid, that I won’t see him again, or that if I do, it won’t be a Ted I know but a Ted I have to annihilate. I almost want Zack to put his arms around me, to tell me it’s okay but the thing is, I know it isn’t, I know everything is completely fucked now.

Then there’s that sound, a sound like dropping a barrel, a hollow sound followed by a kind of fast, soft crunch. I’m at the door when I hear that sound, my palms are flat against the wood, flat and absorbing what I know is Ted’s last moment of peace. I look back at the others. Janette and Matt are clinging tightly together and Phil is at the window, staring at it as if the window itself committed the crime.

He’s done the right thing, I remind myself, he’s one of us, he knows what must be done… He would do the same for me and I would do it for him too.

Then there’s a sound I’m not expecting, not hoping for, a cry, a wail, not of sadness but of absolute frustration. Ted comes back and opens the door and when he does, I’m there waiting. I can see his face now, there’s nothing left, none of the spry, wicked Ted that lurked beneath the sober, nerdy exterior. It’s wiped away, cut off with the same sweep of the ax that ended Holly.

“If any of you want to say goodbye, you should follow me.”

We file out into the hallway, Dapper included, our heads bowed, our mouths sticky with tears that haven’t fallen yet and words no one has the courage to speak. Holly isn’t in the hallway, but there’s a fresh stain on the floor and on Ted’s hands. Her sweatshirt hangs from the stairwell banister like a wreath of flowers slung around a gravestone.

Ted isn’t saying anything and I’m not sure I can speak but I take his hand and hold it and squeeze it until I can feel him squeeze back.

“It’s not fair,” I whisper, “Fuck, it’s so fucking unfair.”

Janette begins to cry and Phil is sniffling, trying hard to be brave. I don’t know how long we stood there, bowing our heads toward that sweatshirt, waiting like comrades of a fallen soldier, waiting for some sign to go on, that things wouldn’t just end altogether when we finally found the strength to raise our heads. Part of me wants it to end, because if someone as sweet and well-meaning as Holly can be destroyed by something so random, so coincidental, then what’s the use?

Ted let’s go of my hand and turns, leading us back into the apartment. That’s when I notice that Zack hasn’t been standing with us and I can’t remember when he stopped being there. I let it go, I let the focus go for one minute and he’s gone. I know something is really wrong when Ted slams the ax, head first, onto the countertop.

“No,” I tell him, “No, search, search everywhere.”

He runs out of the kitchen, Phil and Matt sprint into the other apartment. We’re not looking for Zack; we’re looking for the boxes, the neatly labeled boxes holding our food. All of the food.

My face is wet as I open every cupboard, slamming them shut when they’re empty, when there’s only an empty wrapper or a bottle of soy sauce. Ted walks into the kitchen, his face blank, bloodless. I can tell from his voice that we’ve lost everything.

“There’s something you need to hear, Allison.”

It’s the radio: I can hear it trickling out of the bedroom and down the hall. It’s The Voice, the stranger I’ve come to rely on. “ – is an alert, be on the alert. He is five-eight, blonde, green eyes, about one hundred and seventy pounds. We know him only as Jack. Staffers are reporting stolen goods and equipment.”

“Get your bat.”

“Allison!”

It’s Janette, she’s in the living room screaming her head off. Ted and I meet her there, armed, red-faced and furious. The space outside the door, in the hallway, is moving, seething. Ted and I hack our way out into the hallway. It’s a god damned ambush, dozens, maybe hundreds, all of them fumbling up the stairwell toward us. I lean over the banister, Ted protecting me. At the bottom of the stairs I can see the maintenance room door is wide open and more and more undead are pouring out from inside.

Fucking bastard, fucking god damned bastard,” I push past Ted and back into the apartment. Janette is crumpled on the floor, curled up, sobbing. Matt and Phil appear with their golf clubs and Dapper barks and barks, dancing back and forth behind Ted.

“Janette,” I say, going to the window, “Janette! Fucking get up! Get up and get the wine down.”

“T-the wine?”

“JUST FUCKING DO WHAT I TELL YOU.”

Janette scrambles to her feet behind me and I can hear the clink of bottles as she lays them out on the countertop. There’s only three, but that should be enough. Out on the street I can see him, he’s getting away, carrying our things, our food. It’s slow going and there might just be a way…

“Bring him the ax, Janette. Ted!” I shout, going to the wine bottles, “Can you hold them off at the door?”

“Yeah, but whatever you’re doing, hurry it up!”

I can barely hear him over the baseball bat and then the chopping of the ax. Phil and Matt stand behind him, whacking at anything that gets too close.

“Janette, I need you to focus, okay? Get these open and pour out as much as you can. Down the sink, get it?”

She nods frantically, her eyes leaking tears as she takes the corkscrew I’ve forced into her trembling hands. I slam open the doors beneath the sink and shove 409 and Drain-O and sponges out of the way until I find it, hiding in the back, a little silver nugget with a bright red top. The linen closet is next to I sprint there and grab an old fitted shit. Thankfully we’ve kept the lighters in an easy to reach place, and Holly has emptied out most of the first bottle. I grab it and shake harder, watching the good Pinot Noir drip down the drain. Janette goes to open more as I shove the lighter in my mouth and tear a long strip of fabric off the sheet. I tear off two more and pull off the red top on the turpentine. I hear Janette gag from the smell as the bottle is filled halfway, and then the next, and then the last.

“Allison! Come on! Fuck!”

“I’m almost done!” I shout back, meaning it. I shove the cloth strips inside and jam the corks back down onto the bottles.

Just one last thing… I run back to the bedroom and pack up the laptop, nearly dropping it as I shove it into the carrier and swing it up diagonally across my shoulders. Ted is grunting with effort as I arrive back in the living room, his swings growing more and more erratic.

“Okay, we need to clear a path to the fire escape. I’ve got our retreat covered.”

Ted hands me back my ax and together we mow down a path. It’s not very clear, and more than once I feel my heart fly up into my throat as a hand grabbed my sleeve or shoe. Ted goes first with Matt and Phil, Janette sandwiched in the middle carrying my bottles. Matt’s got one hand on Dapper’s collar, pulling the mutt along. I hear the window open and the clang – clang of their feet on the metal grates of the fire escape. My hands are locked so tightly around the ax I can feel my knuckles creaking with rage. If I don’t hold it tight, it’ll slip right out of my grasp from the sweat. I’ve still got the lighter in my mouth, it’s hard to breathe and swing and breathe swing, but I manage. The apartment is filling up and the noise is amazing, screeching and groaning, a whole buffet’s worth of hungry, angry, desperate undead shoving themselves through the door. They’re tearing at each other just trying to get to us.

“Okay! We’re out!”

“Get down the ladder,” I call, taking the lighter out of my mouth, “Go! Go!”

I duck into the kitchen and out onto the fire escape, keeping the window open. The apartment is filled to capacity now and there are bodies wriggling into the kitchen, mouths hanging open, tongues missing altogether or hanging by a thread of muscle. I’ve never done this before but I’ve seen it on TV and that’ll just have to be good enough. I light the first wick and, having no idea how long to wait, decide to toss it right away. This is both a good and bad decision.

The cocktail explodes somewhere in the living room and the blast is unbelievable. It reaches through the kitchen, the heat of it slamming through the window and into my chest. I almost go ass over head off of the balcony but I manage to stumble back up to my feet, my back screaming in pain. There’s warmth on my face where the blast licked my skin. I skid down the ladder and beckon the others away; I jog backward a few paces before lighting the second one and hurling it at the window. Fire and body parts shoot into the air, cascading over our heads and the retaining wall. We’re out behind the store now and the building is beginning to burn.

Dapper whines and sits at my feet, cleaning my fingers.

“Right,” I say, turning to face the others. I know I look crazy because they’re gaping at me like I’ve completely lost my mind. “Ted, you’re coming with me. The rest of you head for the university. We’ll meet you there.”

“But… Where are you going? You have to come with us,” Janette says, still clutching the third bottle to her chest.

“Ted and I have some unfinished business to look after,” I tell them. I shake Matt’s hand and then Phil’s. “You’ll be fine, I know you will. It’s not far. Take care of that bottle, Janette, use it if you have to. Take Dapper with you, okay?”

Janette nods, but I can see the look in her eyes. She’s thinking: Ten blocks, ten blocks, that may as well be in Sri Lanka. Trembling, she drags Dapper away. He doesn’t want to go with them but I know it’s safer, I know I’m not in my right mind right now. Ted and I circle around the retaining wall, giving the building a wide birth. The crackle of fire reaches the street level; the entire top floor of the apartments is ablaze, the smoke and flames twinkling in the windows. The street is almost empty, littered here and there with debris, with scorches and brown, faded blood stains.

Sure, Zack has a good head start on us but he’s slow, weighed down and we know what direction he’s headed. He won’t come back to the apartments and he won’t go near the university. There’s no catharsis, no time to mourn Holly or to worry about the others; Ted and I are light on our feet, armed, and pushed forward by something terrible, something consuming and both of us are burning for a fight.

[To be continued…]

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One Response to “10-06-09 – Things Fall Apart”

  1. please…i can’t wait.

    i know that i don’t have much longer before the cold consumes me or they do. yet i’ve come to rely on your group to keep me company; i was trapped here alone and have found your blog as the only contact i’ve had with ‘real’ people. i will mourn holly along with you…as long as i’m able to…but please keep writing.

    i can’t wait.

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