I remember sitting there playing. I couldn’t have been more than three. I remember playing and then coming to a realization that I was completely alone. The terror that gripped me then was much like it is now, a cold lead weight that’s tied to your guts and pulls your airway tight making it hard to move and harder to breathe. Except then I turned around and someone was there but I couldn’t tell who it was due to the light streaming from behind them leaving them in a glorious silhouette. The weight was gone, melted in that instant, turned to pure elation at the sight of another person. I couldn’t explain then and I can’t now but somehow I just knew that person was there to save me.
Unfortunately, that memory is long gone, and all I am left with is that same weight nestled firmly in my stomach. I turned around and for the briefest of moments I expected to see that shining figure standing there. But my eyes settled on the grim reality that I was enduring. I had watched the parking lot for over an hour and hadn’t seen anything moving. It was getting to be the wrong side of noon and I had to go now or I’d go hungry and thirsty for the night, maybe longer. Who knows what tomorrow will be like?
I grabbed my bag, hammer and axe handle, my keys and wallet (…old habits…) and went to the door and opened it as slowly and quietly as I could. I honestly expected the empty parking lot I just witnessed to be filled with them; waiting for me to open that door. But it was still empty. I stepped out and shut the door, locking the dead bolt behind me (…they die hard.).
It actually felt good to be outside, I didn’t feel so trapped. I could feel the confidence creeping in and untangling the knot in my gut and my brain screaming “do it now before I talk you out of it”. With that I took my first step toward the road leading into town. I briefly thought about going through neighboring townhomes, but realized the noise that would be made while breaking in might be detrimental to my current safe house staying undetected. So I thought going into town would be my best bet. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going but I knew what direction. I wasn’t sure how much would be left after the riots and fires, let alone how many of the dead were still wandering around.
“I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it, as they say.”
I said this out loud and was startled by my own voice in the eerie calm. I laughed at this. That felt good even though I was breaking the silence and possibly drawing unwanted attention. It was this that made it worse, thinking about how quiet I had to be made it so much worse. That uncontrollable shaking laughter you get when you’re supposed to be dead quiet. The church giggles some call it.
Not knowing what to do I ran to the nearest grouping of bushes. It was in the narrow pathway between the townhouse wall and the bushes that I laid, biting the backpack I carried trying to get a grip on my laughing. It was through the tears that I saw it there, waiting to be found. Probably put there to be shielded from the prying eyes of other children.
After a few minutes I had composed myself and was able to free it from the bushes. It was small and pink. It was a great bike if you were a small girl learning to ride. It had long streamers coming off the handlebars, a bell, a pretty basket on the front with flowers on it, and it had training wheels.
My initial thoughts were, “there’s no way I’d be caught dead on that thing.” But that was old world thinking now, wasn’t it? So I ripped off the streamers and removed the bell and threw them back in the bushes from where they came. The training wheels were next, but I kept those, they might come in handy some day. I stopped short of the basket, hopefully that would be useful today.
I had to stand up to pedal it, but it moved me along more rapidly than walking, and I was now able to ride through the parts of the road that were choked with abandoned cars and burned out wreckage and debris. Travelling seemed like a breeze now, the surrounding area seemed free of the walking dead and now I was cruising along on a brand new bike. It was almost dreamlike riding with the wind in my face. Riding, but to where I didn’t know.
I made it to the part of town where most of the shops were and I was rudely awakened. The town was in shambles. What once was what many had thought was the American ideal was tumbled in charred and smoldering ruins. Piles of debris and trash were settled in every place that would hold it. Bloody trails and clothes and chunks of flesh were strewn about the streets and sidewalks. There were a few bodies, but most had walked away from where they had died. A lone crow that was perched on a mail box with a bit a flesh dangling from his beak watched me. Staring at me. He might as well have just said, “This is my town now.” I looked away.
I stood there realizing that even though I had lived in this town for years, I only just barely knew my way around. I only knew how to get to a few parts of town without direction, but one of the places I knew might be able to help me out. The bookstore.
It was just down the road; in fact I could almost see it. The way looked clear, but every noise I heard was a potential monster waiting to grab me. But this needed to be done. The bookstore had a small café inside, so there was a chance of getting some supplies. Also, they had maps. There was a big section of road maps, topographic maps, atlases, satellite image maps, and geographic reference books.
Pulling up to the bookstore I could see that it wasn’t left untouched. The large plate glass window in front of the check out counter had been smashed. The old fashioned cash register that had once added to the charm of the store was now lying in a heap on the floor. The cash drawer had been pried out and tossed aside spilling the coins it housed. The paper bills had been liberated long before.
The brass door handled was cold and was also locked, so I had enter in through the makeshift door used by a rioter, being careful no to cut myself on the jagged remains of the window. When I got in I made my way around the counter. There was blood smeared across the floor, in the dim light I could barely see hand prints and where the knees dragged as someone crawled across the floor. The trail led to the back of the store that appeared to be pitch-black, but I could hear something moving, shuffling among the books that had no doubt spilled from their shelf during the chaos of the riots.
That was dumb on my part, but you know what they say about hind sight. I immediately regretted my query when I heard the answering moan. The weight had grown inside again seeming rip at my throat, and I issued a choking gasp. I knew what I should do, but I didn’t know if I could. I made my way to the back of the store guided only by a moan, a ghastly, haunting moan. I moved slowly and deliberately, feeling my way with my feet, pushing stray books aside. If I needed to run, I could go back with a somewhat clear path.
As my eyes adjusted I could make out the figure in the back. It was the owner. She was a nice older lady; I would say she was in her late 40’s or early 50’s. She looked nice despite being dead.
Her blank stare was pointed at me and she was staggering over some books to get to me. She knew I was there and there was no use trying to hide behind the book shelves now. I skirted around her and worked my way over to the isle she occupied. All the while she stumbled toward me, slow and awkward. And I could see why she had so much trouble.
From the other side of the shelves, I could see she was wearing a modest pale yellow cardigan over a white blouse, accented by a small string of pearls. Quite lovely actually. When I entered that isle, any perception I had of her was destroyed. Her legs were bare and the left was covered completely in blood. A gouge the size of a cantaloupe adorned with ragged flesh was on her left hip. The bone of the leg glittered as it worked in the joint, struggling to make its way over to me. It glittered much like the pearls. Her pants no longer had a hip to rest and had fallen to the ground lifelessly and gathered around her ankles.
I don’t remember much after seeing this. I remember that my knuckles glowed white around the axe handle, and heard a voice say “This will be the hardest one. The first one is always the hardest.” I ran, and I swung. I remember the sickening wet thud the handle made against her temple. I remember what was left of her head as I stood over the motionless body. The distorted gaping mouth thanks to a newly unhinged jaw. The left eye was now missing, no doubt due to the first impact. The bloody and matted hair that had come to rest in the bowl like indentation that was the left side of her skull, the ear dangled by a loose flap of skin. I remember I wet myself at some point, I didn't realize until after the fact. I threw up. I cried.
After some time I pulled myself together enough, to get some maps and supplies. I got several maps; local, regional and national, road, topographic and satellite. I found some canned goods and bottled water and a big plastic jug of hard pretzels at the café. What I couldn’t carry with me I moved closer to the door and covered with a pile of books, for quicker access. I filled my bag and the basket of the bike (my bike now) and sat there under the awning that was covering the entrance of the bookstore, much like I had done in front of my window before I left. I watched to make sure the coast was clear but, just as before my thoughts soon gave way to memories. I cried again, and then made my way home.