09-27-09 – The Bloody Chamber

“Tell them. Go on, tell them what you told me.”

I’m standing in front of the assembled group sweating like a hog. They’re glaring at me because they’ve read Ted’s expression and know now that I’ve done something bad, really bad. It’s elementary school all over again. Show and tell, the mortifying gauntlet of raised eyebrows and pursed lips. Everyone is even grumpier than usual; it’s late September now and it’s starting to get cold. It’s creeping through the walls and causing the clammy dampness of our tiny world to change into something more sinister. Holly has a cough. I’ve learned now were Brooks & Peabody‘s priorities are at: the security cameras run on the emergency power but not the much-needed heat.

I clear my throat.

“I’ve been keeping a blog for a while now. It started out as a cry for help but then I… I don’t know, it felt good to talk about what was happening so I kept going.” I don’t know why it’s hard to say it, but it feels like a betrayal and I can see Holly is on the verge of tears. “There’s good and bad news. The good news is that there are still other people alive, they’re out there, they wrote back to me. The bad news is… They’re just like us, trapped, helpless.”

“I don’t suppose any of them were policeman or EMTs?” Matt asks dryly, rolling his eyes at me.

“I don’t know. But that brings us to another point,” I look at Ted, who nods solemnly. Ted and I have discussed this, convened our own private congress and voted, unanimously, to take action. And we’ve come to a decision; now it’s time to tell the group and I know already it’s not going to go well. At least Dapper was there to sit quietly at my feet like an old wise statue, a talisman against the anxious glares pointed my way. “Ted and I are going up to the apartments today. Food is getting low again and we all need to think about finding something more permanent.”

“More permanent?” Holly echoed. Her face had gone completely white and her fingertips were hanging off the side of her mouth. She had started chewing her nails a lot lately.

Ted and I exchanged a look.

“The thing is, the news coming in from outside isn’t good. Chicago is under attack too, and – ”

“Under attack?” Janette asked, her hand clutching Matt’s knee. I’m starting to wish they would stop repeating everything I say and contribute, but that’s asking too much. It’s my fault, I should’ve phrased that better, I shouldn’t have given her hope. I mean, I suppose an attack could imply a resistance, I know that’s where her mind went. It’s where mine would go too.

“Overrun.”

There was a long pause after that. I watched tiny particles of the full truth settling down on their faces, melting over them in a horrifying fog, putting creases in their foreheads and then drawing their mouths down in fear. Holly covered her mouth and made a raspy, strangled sound.

I should be angry, this is really all your fault. You, anonymous, and you Bruce, should be ashamed of yourselves. When I saw someone else was out there, two of you no less, I almost spat out my Sierra Mist all over the keyboard. And then, in my exuberance, I told Ted about you two and subsequently outed my sad little secret life. Ted was not pleased.

“What were you thinking? Using your fucking laptop! You’re wasting energy,” he snapped, scowling at me. He had refused a haircut and now his fringe is starting to get in his eyes. He pushed it out of his view with an angry little huff. “I can’t believe you. Why didn’t you say anything?”

“This is a good thing, Ted, I can feel it. Look, if there’s still wireless then there are still people doing things, right? Or at least, not everything is fucked, you know? I mean… Right?”

“You have to tell the others,” he whispered, frowning and shaking his moppy head. “They deserve to know. I deserved to know. I wish you had told me what you were up to.”

“Well now you know. It wasn’t… intentional, I just didn’t think anything would come of it, you know? It felt more like therapy than an S.O.S. No more secrets from now on, Ted, I promise.”

That seemed to calm him down a bit so our congress of two moved on to a new topic: Dapper. Dapper doesn’t bark. He hasn’t barked at any of us for any reason. Maybe he’s intuited the danger we’re all in, maybe he’s just trying to fit in and be as likable as possible (which has worked, by the way). But last night after hair cuts we started to notice noises up above us, loud, scraping noises like furniture being moved around. At first we didn’t think much of it but then Dapper started barking his head off, jumping up and flashing his teeth at the ceiling.

Ted and I have determined that this is significant. The barking coupled with the noises… We think there might be survivors up there. It’s entirely possible too considering they’re on the second floor. I have no idea how agile those things are, they might not be able to handle stairs very well and if stairs slowed them down then maybe the tenants upstairs had managed to hold them off. We wonder if maybe Dapper came from one of the apartments upstairs and this is his way of telling us to go up.

And that brings us to the unpleasant task of asking, again, for volunteers. Ted and I are less certain that we can safely get through the store, out the back and up the fire escape with just the two of us. A third person would be nice, someone to keep watch in the back, just one more pair of eyes on the look out. I can see Matt is rousing himself for an argument and he’s shifted forward a little, as if putting himself between us sand Janette. Matt has taken the long, thoughtful pause to organize his thoughts and prepare himself for the inevitable showdown.

“No,” he finally says, “No way. It’s suicide.”

“It’s not suicide, Matt. Don’t be so dramatic.”

“You have no idea what’s up there, how many of them are up there.”

“But what if it’s not so bad? What if we can clear it out? We might actually be able to live like real human beings with couches and counter tops and beds!” I say. This is getting bad, if he keeps the doom and gloom going then no one will volunteer to help us.

Then Janette, wonderful, gorgeous Janette, murmurs very quietly, “A bed would be nice.”

Matt stares at her, appalled, betrayed and sits back hard against the cupboards. He crosses his arms over his chest and looks the other direction. I’m hoping this means Janette will join us, but she’s silent again. Ted and I glance at each other and shift awkwardly from foot to foot. I can feel the frustration building, I want to shout at these people. I want to shout: Don’t you get it? Don’t you see what’s happened? We just have to get along! That’s all we have to do, just fucking get along.

“Please?” I ask, sighing.

“I’ll go. Damnit, yes, I’ll go.”

It’s Phil and he’s standing up, looking down at his comrades with a slight sneer. He’s woken up at last. He nods, either to bolster his own confidence or ours, I can’t tell, and then strides to the door. “Well? What are you waiting for? Are we going out there or not?”

“Yeah, of course we are, but let’s take a minute and get ready, okay? No rush.” Ted says, pulling Matt’s shirt off the counter. He looks skeptical, chewing down on his lower lip, and I can see why: Phil’s just a bit too enthusiastic.

Phil refuses to go out unless he can use the baseball bat. Fine. We get the fire extinguisher down from the wall in the safe room and give it to Ted. We figure he can at least slow them down if any get too close. I’m not sure how much damage a fire extinguisher blast to the face does, but none of us are willing guinea pigs.

The plan is to move fast, to not get bogged down in one area of the store. To keep moving until we make it out the back. We hope that once we make it onto the fire escape, any groaners that have decided to follow us will disperse by the time we come back down. I’ve checked the monitors and the store looks nice and quiet. Between taking Dapper out to go toilet and trips across the hall to the bathroom, we’ve cleared out most of the trouble in the immediate area. I’m less confident about the back of the store, where there are plenty of bookshelves for hiding and skulking and ambushing.

But my real fear is about going outside. Once we open the very back doors, the ones leading out from the store room, there’s no telling what we’ll see.

We’ve wrapped up our heads and reminded Matt to keep a close ear to the door. Secretly, we’ve asked Holly to listen for us too. Of the three of us, Phil looks the most outrageously stupid. He’s using an old wind breaker for a head wrap and his glasses are poking out, resting a little on the fabric. His white polo shirt is now more off-white or yellow and his khaki pants are hopelessly wrinkled. Grunting, he scoots up his pants and nods to Ted, who has his hand on the door. When we go out, it’s pretty anticlimactic, the store outside the door is empty and there’s nothing but the sound of a distant car alarm.

I go out in front with Phil and Ted takes the back position. We turn right, going up the stairs and past the empty refrigerators and cash registers. It’s hard to resist the bookshelves when we get there, but I’ve learned my lesson and I know that behind any one of them could be a whole mess of undead. Before going out, Ted asked me to please only grab one book on the way back if I had to, two at the most.

Once you get past the cash registers there’s about twenty or thirty feet of bookshelves before you get to the back store room. We stay hard to the right, leaving only one side open for an attack. There’s a low grumbling from the left and Phil whirls around to face it, ready, poised, and he’s raised the bat and taken a hard, crashing swing before I even have time to warn him. I glance at Ted, who seems less skeptical now, even through the barrier of Matt’s flannel shirt.

The floor is littered with books, stained, ruined books with pages glued to the floor by God knows what. I ax down a few groaners right before we take the right turn into the store room and I can see that in the bookshelves across the room, there are more and they’ve noticed us. But the plan is to keep moving, so we do, and we maintain a fast, shuffling walk that turns into a jog when we make it into the back room. The store room is a big, open area with a few long tables for organizing shipments that come in. There are two areas, the first large room which has mostly empty shelving units and restocking supplies, and then the very back room which has the doors leading to the outside world. We make it to the very back room and I know it’s grim before we even get there – the noise, the grumbling, pained noises of dozens of undead shifting around. They’ve anticipated our arrival and begin slowly meandering out to meet us at the doors.

Phil is still focused and on point and cracks a few right on top of the head. I don’t recognize any of these groaners, which makes it a little easier to clean up Phil’s work with a few well-placed swings to the neck. The hardest part is keeping a good, safe distance from Phil, who threw himself into the work with a real admirable zeal. Ted hangs back, shooting out loud jets of air with the fire extinguisher, pushing the oncoming undead back so Phil and I have time to dismantle each one. We work out a rhythm, Phil tries to take them down with one overhead thwack to the face or chest and if that doesn’t stop them completely then I step in and finish them off.

When the store room is clear and the floor is covered in a sticky, black sludge, we take a moment to breathe. Phil’s shoulders are shaking from the exertion, and he leans over to rest his hands on his knees and pant. I forget how lazy we are, how we sit around all day passing around the same book, the same magazines, playing cards, eating junk food and sleeping.

The back store room isn’t anything remarkable. There’s a long table and a few ancient computers for checking in shipments and a few more shelving units. I can see that the back doors are open a crack; and a thin, ghostly line of sunlight runs down the middle of the floor. Phil staggers upright and soldiers on, boldly striding toward the door. It feels like something big, something important. We’ve conquered something, reached a goal that was once just a vague, imaginative “there.”

I’m worried about Phil. I know he’s a grown man and he can take care of himself, but I’m not sure he’s prepared for what he’ll see when those doors open all the way. I’m not sure I’m prepared either. Phil pushes hard against the heavy door and it lets loose a long, metallic squeal. The world outside is gray, punctuated by a few slender shafts of sunlight bleeding through the clouds. It’s colder than I expected, late September, chilly and overcast and crisp. It’s the kind of weather I used to love, sweater weather, sit outside bundled up in a blanket weather. But there’s no lush, amber scent of burning leaves and no squirrels frolicking in the trees, just abandoned buildings in the distance, standing like forgotten monuments, the lights out, the people gone.

I can hear that car alarm again but no running engines, no mysterious rescue vehicle en route to save us. It’s ghastly and quiet. The cement landing outside the door is empty, there’s no greeting party of undead to interrupt the horrible, aching calm. This was a city once, a living place, and now it’s gone muted and gray. Phil stumbles out onto the landing, heedless of the cold, but I can see the hairs on his arms standing up and goosebumps. I go out too and then down the steps. The big recycling dumpster and the garbage dumpster are open, riffled through, papers and boxes scattered across the pavement. Ted is jabbing at my back urgently. I turn and see he’s pointing at something. It’s a car, Phil’s car, and suddenly everything becomes clear.

Phil’s running toward his old maroon LeSabre before either of us can put out a hand to stop him. Even if we had, Phil is a huge guy, with linebacker shoulders and enough weight to throw us off without effort. He’s sprinted down the stairs and over to the car, but he doesn’t even make it to the door before he’s stopped.

I can’t explain it. Everyone knows it’s uncomfortable and heartbreaking to see a grown man cry, but it’s worse somehow when it’s your boss. He’s fallen just short of the car and stumbled down to his knees; his entire body is jolting forward and back as if he were being electrocuted. The gas cap is open, hanging down. It’s the same with the car next to his, Janette’s, there’s no gas, it’s been siphoned, stolen.

He came with us to escape. That’s clear now. I should’ve thought of that possibility. I want to be mad, I want to stand him up and shake him hard and then slap him across the face. But I can’t. I want to ask him: Where would you go? Where do you think there is to go?

Instead, I walk over to him and gently put my palm on his shoulder. He’s tense all over, one big knot of nerves and frustration. “It’s okay. I won’t tell the others.”

We need to keep going, to push forward, but I don’t know how to rouse him from the grief. It’s just another wave of horror, another in an unending series of unwelcome surprises. Phil stops shaking after a moment and gets to his feet, slobbering across the back of his hand as he tries to wipe the tears and snot off of his cheeks and chin. There’s a tear caught in his goatee but I don’t say anything about it.

“There are golf clubs in the trunk,” he says in a sad, calm voice. He pulls a key ring out of his khaki pants and goes to the trunk. Inside, a big bag of golf clubs wait, sleeping in the gleaming leather bag, their fat heads covered in hoods like executioners. Phil reaches over and carefully, lovingly pulls out one of the clubs. “Ain’t she a beauty?”

She is.

“Here, one for each of us.”

Phil hands me a club. He tells me it’s a “driver.” It’s light, unnaturally light considering the enormous metal head. I pull off the cover and even in the dull, overcast light the silvery metal gleams. DIABLO is etched across its face. “We’ll take the drivers and the woods,” Phil says, handing Ted a club and keeping two for himself.

He seems to be composing himself. I think just holding the clubs again brought him back to a state of normalcy.

After that it’s time to keep moving. I’m getting nervous standing out in the open for so long and I keep imagining that just around the retaining wall to our right is an entire army of groaners scuttling toward us. We go back to the cement landing; Ted knocks Phil on the back and thanks him for the clubs.

The fire escape hangs down from the apartments above, ending a few feet above the landing. I’m too short to make it up to the top rung by myself so Ted gives me a boost with his hands cupped into a stirrup. I’m not excited to go first up a ladder that could very well take me right into a window full of undead, but there’s a shiny new golf club hanging from my belt loop and I’m itching to try it out. Not that I’ve grown tired of the ax, it’s just nice to know that I’ve got a back up.

The wrought iron of the fire escape is freezing cold and covered in little pits that hurt my hands. I go as fast as possible, hoping to get to the top and inside a window before the creatures waiting inside have a chance to anticipate us. We still don’t know how they find us – is it scent? Is it something worse, some gift acquired at the moment of death?

I reach the slatted metal landing with my teeth chattering from the cold. Once your adrenaline drops the freezing temperature moves in, shimmying inside your clothes and making your bones ice over. The window immediately in front of the fire escape is wide open, not a good sign. Whoever lived inside must have tried to escape, and why would they do that if they were tucked away safe and sound in their apartment?

Once Ted and Phil are on the escape with me I peek inside the window. I’m looking in someone’s kitchen and it’s been totally ransacked. The drawers and cupboards are open or yanked down onto the linoleum; silverware and plate fragments littered the ground and counter tops and the refrigerator door was propped open. Seeing no one and nothing, I climb inside and then open the window wider for Ted and Phil. They struggle through the small opening, sighing and grunting as they wedge themselves through the window.

It’s cold inside, still, and filled with the kind of eerie silence that makes you think of ghosts. Nothing happy could’ve happened here, there was never any joy or laughter, not when the feeling of death is creeping and crawling over everything. Even the bright, cheerful yellow paint job can’t keep the chilly fear at bay. I check the cupboards to be sure, but there’s nothing. Someone has already come and cleaned out the apartment. There’s no food, not the edible kind, and the refrigerator stinks from mold and spoiled milk. I shut it and continue on into a narrow, poky hall. The framed photographs are still there, knocked onto angles, but intact. I try not to look at the posed family photos, the hopeful smiles and cheesy sweaters.

“Fuck,” I hear Ted murmur. I’m thinking the same thing. When you live in almost constant fear, your instincts become better, sharper, and you can tell when something is terribly amiss. I get that feeling in the living room walking over the suspicious red stains on the ivory shag carpet, and I get that feeling again when we’ve finished walking through every room and find no one, just mess after mess, open drawer after open drawer, a phone hanging off the line with no dial tone.

We leave that apartment and go out into the hall. Here we meet a few of our undead friends and Ted and I get to practice our golf swings. I’ve never cared for golf much but I could certainly learn to love it. The driver is light but vicious, it takes a hefty dent out of the first groaner’s face. I prefer the ax, it’s more reliable, more deadly, but the driver is easier to swing and much less tiring. It’s easiest just to knock them over the banister down onto the stairs below, so we do and listen to the satisfying crunch of their soft bodies hitting the ground floor.

The hall is dark, the walls covered in striped, rose pink wallpaper with a floral boarder. There are other doors hanging open and a shiver jutters down my spine. I don’t want to go inside them, but I know we should. The first two are almost identical to the other apartment – ransacked, cold, empty and filled with the pervasive fog of troubled souls. There are two apartments left after that and only one of them has a tightly shut door. We enter the open apartment first.

I thank God for the cold, cold weather.

He’s there, a middle aged man, probably no more than 35. He is, was, sitting on a rocking chair. It’s oddly placed in the middle of the living room, pushed away from the sofa, entertainment center and grandfather clock. The back side of the chair is red but it shouldn’t be. His head is thrown back, his very dark curls cascading over the edge. I walk closer; Phil and Ted have stopped at the door and I can hear Phil retching in the hall. The man’s neck is open, gashed at the neck, not by teeth, not by the undead, but by the clean, sharp sweep of a knife.

“No, this isn’t right,” I say, shaking my head. His eyes are open, staring, milky white where the blue should be. The room is so cold that he hasn’t begun to decompose. The same thought keeps occurring to me every few seconds: Even if we clear this place out, even if it’s safe, how can we live here?

Then I’m running into the hall and vomiting over the staircase. I can’t help it, it’s worse, so much worse than the other things, the walking, unliving things. You can feel him trapped in there, the silent scream, the wide open mouth begging for life.

“We have to get him out of there,” Ted says. I agree and my esteem for Ted grows a little more as he and I carefully pick up the body, me the feet and Ted the shoulders. We’re not sure where to take it, but we settle on the opposite end of the hall, in a quiet corner by a closet door. He’s heavy in our arms, even without his blood, and I can’t keep my eyes off the raw, red ribbon sewn across his neck. After putting him in the corner we go back in the apartment and find a clean sheet in the man’s linen closet, one of the few things that hasn’t been taken. We put it over him, we watch the the white speckled fabric settle over his body, shrouding him like a martyr at peace.

I think about the red stains in the first apartment, the ones on the carpet and I wonder where the bodies are.

There isn’t anything to say, so we silently go to the last door, the closed one. It’s locked so I take the knob off with the ax. The windows in the living room are open a little and a murmuring breeze rolls in. It’s chilly here too and again, I’m thankful. There’s another body here, an old, frail woman with hands covered in brown spots, the skin so ancient it’s stretched across her bones like parchment. She looks happy, okay, sitting on her overstuffed couch with closed eyes and a wan smile. I wonder if she had a heart attack, if she saw the commotion outside, staggered over to the couch and simply died. She’s easier to carry, too light, so fragile I’m worried we’ll crush her into dust. We put her beside the man and cover her too.

Phil keeps a look out from the door, his baseball bat and gleaming club at the ready.

When we go back in her apartment we find everything where it should be: the china, the silverware, the pots and pans and towels and bed linens. Everything is very clean but there’s a faint smell of dust, as if all her possessions were old, from a different time. I pick up a piece of junk mail on the front desk. Ms. Jane Weathers. I go into her kitchen and it’s painted bright green. There are a few plants on the window sill but they’ve begun to shrivel up and wilt.

When I open up the cupboards beneath her sink I have to keep myself from laughing. I’m trying not to chuckle, I really am, but it’s just too damn much. The apartment could be a model for emergency survival. Poor Ms. Weathers was undoubtedly a product of the “duck and cover,” fall-out shelter in your back yard era. It shows. Ted finds two generators in her coat closet and an ancient AM/FM portable radio with numbers on the knobs that are probably legible from outer space. In the cupboards I find all the canned crap that languishes in the very back of your pantry – green beans, baked beans, peaches, instant mashed potatoes.

“Well looks like we’re going go be living it up Leave it to Beaver style,” I say, holding up a can of creamed corn for Phil to inspect. I can’t remember the last time I ate any of these things, but they all sound better than Cheetohs. The apartment is perfect: clean, spacious and well-stocked. I don’t know if we can all fit, or if we should. There are other apartments, but I can’t stop thinking about the blood stains on the carpet… That apartment is the most logical choice, it has the handy fire escape. We could put a rug over the stains, we could do something…

“Incoming!”

Phil is shouting, and in the door way he’s whacking away at the creatures shuffling in the doorway. I see a decrepit arm with three fingers reaching in for him and reach the door in time to lop it off. Ted is there, the fire extinguisher puffing away, screaming past my ear. I take a brown paper bag and fill it with canned items and a can opener and rejoin the boys, who have cleared a path back to the apartment with the fire escape. We sprint inside and I push the bag into Ted’s arms. He and Phil go down first and I cover their escape, hacking away at two groaners who have followed close on our heels. I shut the window on my way out, leaving it just a crack open.

Inside the store it’s quiet, and we move a little more slowly. On the way by the bookshelves I grab a few books and toss them into Ted’s bag. I restrain myself and he pats me on the back. Holly greets us at the door, tears of relief shimmering in her eyes. I never noticed how beautiful she is, how her new haircut shows her pretty face to advantage, how her cheekbones are high and regal. I’m just glad to see they’re all alive and glad to have Dapper dancing at my shins, doing laps around my feet as I take off the head wrap and wipe down the ax and golf club.

“We found some golf clubs,” I say in response to their curious looks, “in the apartments.”

Phil shoots me a glance, grateful, and we all sit down to a dinner of beef jerky, Pepsi and green beans.

Now I’m alone in the safe room. I’m exhausted and so afraid.

The monitors are quiet, everyone is asleep, but I can’t help thinking… Maybe we shouldn’t live in the apartments. It seems wrong somehow, to take over a place we have no claim to, but what choice do we have? The break room is too small and I’m desperate to sleep on a bed again, to feel something soft underneath my head at night, to return to some semblance of civilized life. But something nags.

I don’t know why we feel bound to this place, but it seems impossible to leave.

I turn on the radio we found in Ms. Weather’s apartment. The batteries are still good. It smells like old, wet books and there’s dust collecting in the knobs and grooves. I tune it around, looking for signs of life but there’s only static, static, static.

4 Responses to “09-27-09 – The Bloody Chamber”

  1. CptCrckpot Says:

    Things aren’t much better in Texas, if you were having any thoughts about trying to make your way here. I’m in an office in an industrial park between Dallas and Fort Worth. I worked the night shift doing customer service for a small company. Things had only just started when I came in to work, not even any mention on the news. I heard some sirens shortly after I got here, and later on I could hear cars crashing and gunshots in the distance, but that was it. Good thing our office is the last one in the last industrial park going north on 360 out of Arlington. I’ve spent the past week just laying low here in the office, and have fortified things as best I can. The zombies seem to be few and far between in this area, so I’ve been able to scout out the surrounding area a little bit. At least the utility services haven’t failed yet, so I still have food from the company fridge, internet access, and working toilets, but I’m sure that’s only a matter of time before I lose all of that.

  2. The Bloody Chamber – my favorite Angela Carter book and now my favorite post of yours so far.

    • allisonhewitt Says:

      She’s a marvelous writer and terribly missed. I can’t imagine what she would have to say about the world now, a world on fire.

  3. Is the saga over?

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