'Little man, what now?'
“MOOOOOOMMMMMM!?!?” TJ screamed, frustration and a hopeless terror filling the emptiness in his chest. He heard the shower turning off and waited a few seconds. TJ breathed restlessly through his mouth, his throat burning, child tears queuing at the corners of his eyes.
“WHAT?” he heard as the bathroom door opened.
“WHERE’S MY STUFF???” he shouted, to stop from bursting into a tearful downward spiral of self-loathing and impending doom. He inflated his chest to keep his lungs from collapsing.
“YOUR LITTLE FRIEND FROM NEXT DOOR CAME OVER WHEN YOU LEFT. HE SAID, YOU SAID HE COULD BORROW SOMETHING FROM YOUR ROOM; IS EVERYTHING OK?” Her voice trailed off at the end and TJ felt pricks of looming dread on the back of his neck.
“YEAH MOM, JUST STAY INSIDE, I’M GOING NEXT DOOR!”
He picked himself up off his bedroom floor; he felt like throwing up. His legs were hollow and he struggled to stand, but he had no choice. He swallowed hard and put his hand on the knob of his bedroom door. He closed his eyes and whispered a pathetic prayer to any god that would listen. When he opened his eyes he was outside the door of his neighbour’s house.
The house was almost identical. It had been built at the same time, but apparently everything was the opposite way around. TJ had never been there before because his neighbours were massive douchenozzles. He had hated them since childhood, when they had poured lemonade on his head and rolled him in the sand pit. He got a good look at the interior purely because the door swung wide open as he put his hand on the knob.
The hallway was a crime scene: pictures smashed on the floor, furniture looking off kilter, shoes tossed aside, small drops of blood and a telling trail leading up the stairs. It looked staged, fake, like the set of some cheesy rural crime drama.
He stepped in through the door frame, gingerly trying not to touch anything or make a sound. But his visions of a silent entry were dashed by the distinct sound of glass crunching under the rubber sole of a ‘Dora the Explorer’ slipper. He mused to himself: why hadn’t he changed into some more practical shoes? Before he could put more thought into that vital question, his attention fell on a flashing battery light shining through a bloody shirt.
He pinched the corner of the shirt, bending at the knee as he leaned over an upturned wardrobe at the bottom of the stairs. He pulled the damp shirt towards him and it drew across the device with a slow stickiness, the damp blood throwing up a musty copper smell as he pulled it closer to him.
He pulled the shirt all the way off, revealing a small digital handycam: the same one they had used in the backyard to record their show. He picked it up slowly, by the handle strap, and turned it around to look at the viewfinder.
Frantic steps fell on the cold sidewalk across town. A shoe fell off in a desperate struggle to get off the street. Ankles twisting, people falling into the road. A quiet, slow rolling panic pouring out into the morning light.
The door of a small mom and pop grocery snapped shut. Three shadowed figures watched from the slats in the wood and glass storefront door as a slow boiling chaos milled around outside.
“What’s going on? Who are those people? Is it the army?”
An obnoxious car horn tore through the furious cacophony of anxious whispers. The small road, one of three that led out of town, was blocked by two large trucks, guarded by faceless men in black tactical gear. The car horn didn’t seem to bother them; they stood like wind-up toys, waiting to be over cranked.
The small town was a flat plateau; it was elevated, secluded, surrounded by a dense wood on one side, mountains all along the other, leaving few routes out. People came to live here for that seclusion. For the peace and the pine smell, fresh mountain air, clean water. Most of them commuted to work and lived in lavish suburban homes. The local businesses slowly starved together, only kept alive by a small contingent of hipster college kids, back for the summer, spending their parents’ money.
The roads leaving town were boxed in by these small storefronts.: some empty, some almost empty, boarded up; half the town seemed to be in boxes already. The trucks completely sealed the town. The line of cars was large. It was made up of early morning commuters and families leaving to visit relatives out of town. Mixed in were a sprinkling of nervous people who had seen something that deemed a quick exit. A subtle base level of fear was snowballing, passed back and forth between the people in the traffic jam, like a Ping-Pong ball covered in PCP. Impatient fingers drummed on steering wheels; a roll of cold sweat wiped away by a clammy hand; cacophony of throats clearing, reminding others of their existence. Children in buggies were reassured by uncertain tones from nervous parents.
A feeling of drunken mass hysteria was winding up for a curveball, the traffic jam growing larger and longer and less uniform, the people feeling more boxed in by the small sleepy store fronts. Glass and soft woods gathered dust, the bones of an old town looming over them like gravestones. A claustrophobic feeling closed in on them, suffocating their better senses, changing them into cornered animals.
The furious sound of the single car horn stopped, resulting in the sharp, angry click of a car door opening. This was soon followed by an angsty slamming of the door. A furious middle aged man, in a pinstripe shirt filled out with a comfortable-looking gut - middle management material anger - took to the first merc with a stiff finger and an under-starched collar.
“You, what the hell are you doing in the middle of the road? I’m already late for work; when are you gonna move?” the man screeched. His anger dropped off toward the end as he realised he couldn’t see a reaction.
Without even turning his head, the mercenaries’ voice came through a speaker system in his mask and it carried a mechanical tone. “Return to your vehicle, sir”.
“When are you going to move? I’ll have to go to the other end of town to go around.”
A soft-spoken man in the car behind him stepped out. He wore a creased grey night-shirt and a pair of hastily fastened jeans. He looked tired and a little drawn, his skin pale and damp.
“Please, I need to get my wife to a hospital; she’s hurt! The local doctor’s office is completely full. The phone lines and the Internet are down; they’re referring people to the hospital out of town. I need to get my wife some medical attention!” His hands shook as he spoke; his skin looked paper-thin and bloodless.
“Who’s talking to you, buddy?? Some people got jobs to do,” the rude office worker said as he shoved the pale man out the way.
“Return to your vehicles,” The merc said again, in the exact same practised, ambivalent tone.
“What if I don’t want to? I might as well walk at this rate!” The man gestured angrily, his arms open, flailing his floppy tie all over the place. It was probably very intimidating in an office setting, but the merc was unmoved.
The middle management goblin shrugged, giving the merc a disappointed teacher look as if he was relenting and expecting an apology. He sighed audibly and turned towards his car. He got back, sheathing that officer worker angst with a disparaging look.
The soft-spoken man, who had pulled up behind him, fell out of his car, crawling backwards with a flailing weakness in his movements. His energy drained from his arms and legs to feed his despair.
“Helppp me!” he stuttered.
A naked woman, lightly wrapped in a shower curtain, climbed his fear-paralysed body. A wet bloody bandage peeled off her neck, revealing a ragged-looking wound. She crawled up the length of his body. Frozen in shock, her husband let her take a bite out of his neck. He held her face in his hands and smiled dreamily as his head lolled back and she continued to feed on his chest and neck.
The office manager looked back from his car window. He couldn’t quite see what was going on, blocked off by the man’s car, but he could tell from the sounds and the swelling of the cars, and the voices behind him, that it wasn’t good.
The mercs watched as the naked woman chewed through the sinew of her husband’s neck. Doing so, she removed it and held it up, to easier get at the soft meats in his skull. She sucked his eyes out of their sockets with a soggy, ecstatic slurping sound.
The leader was indiscernible from the other mercenaries but for his orders issued through a brief hand gesture. He lifted one finger and swirled it in a few consecutive circles. His men pressed yellow tabs in unison. The tabs connected to what at first looked like mini-fire extinguishers. Pressing the pressurised switches released a hiss of translucent orange gas. He was the last to do it. When completed, they formed up with their weapons at the ready.
The office manager in the second-hand Hyundai felt a sudden surge from behind. He felt a sharp push of peer pressure from a silent but hungry crowd of eyes. A primal fight or flight instinct tore through his logical brain. He swung back into his car, put it in gear, with a ragged screeching sound of expensive damage, and rubber screamed and bubbled as he ripped forward, with an uneasy jolt, towards the trucks, channelling an early morning cop movie.
The mercs reacted mechanically. Someone wound them tight and they lined up and released all that tension in the form of bullets. The little pieces of fast metal rent the steel and plastic of the little Japanese car. True American imperialism at work. Every bullet hole told him he should have bought American. At least he would have died with dignity.
The engine block shredded, with a tight and controlled burst of automatic weapon fire, the car drifted to an unceremonious stop. It had turned into a lump of boiling metal and plastic and blood and bone. The mercs breathed out, as if relieved, and then caught their breath again, waiting for the next order. The line commander looked at the heaving traffic jam. A quiet half second of contemplation.
Another jerky hand gesture and the mercenaries started firing again, this time on the stationary cars, packed in like sardines, in the tight, suburban high street. The vehicles that could broke off, crashing like bumper cars. The sounds of cracking glass and thin metal and popping plastic and rubber shrieking rang out. The panic boiled over, people falling over themselves, abandoning their cars and their belongings and their families to save life and limb.
“What’s going on? They’re shooting?” A woman’s voice broke into a harsh whisper, back in the quiet storefront. The figures huddled in the mom and pop, watching chaos unfold. They had been drawn like insects to a cool, quiet spot, out of some instinctual fear, drawn to hide and watch.
A young blonde girl, pouty lips, freckles, and shoulder-length hair, wore a tank top and a pair of jeans. Altogether she was a fairly normal-looking girl, adorned with small town charm: pretty, in a homely sort of way.
She was accompanied by two men who were non-descript: a tanned-looking man in a set of overalls, Hispanic possibly Italian. He was clean-shaven and had fairly neat hair. The other man was a short guy, fresh out of high school: her boyfriend maybe. She expected some sort of answer that would make her feel better, but he just stood, gawping out the window, his mouth collecting flies.
The tanned man paced back and forth with his hands on his head. He tried to say something and then swallowed and tightened his mouth. She sighed and grew a set of crows’ feet she didn’t have before.
“What do we do?” she said, almost to herself now.
“..err-” her boyfriend croaked. His whole life flashed before his eyes as he searched for something to shut her up. He was interrupted by an unnerving, wet, crunching sound from behind the counter of the grocery store.
The group turned to see a figure standing in the doorway of the staffroom: a long green army jacket and long, shaggy hair. He was still wearing the bags on his feet. The group’s eyes were drawn to his yellowed teeth as they took a deep, thirsty bite out of what looked like a dirty raw potato, chunks of which deposited themselves on the stupid grin he had all over his dirty, bearded face.
“Who are you?” the girl whispered, as if she was talking to the grim reaper, trying to get on his good side.
“You can call me, ‘Carpenter’,” he said, spitting out a chunk of raw potato onto the counter, to get his words out clearly and grow an even bigger smirk.
The group’s eyes again were drawn to the lump of half-digested raw potato resting on the counter. Their stomachs turned with empty revulsion.
“You hungry?” Carpenter grinned, taking another uncouth bite out of the potato, evidently delighting in their obvious disgust.
“Can you help us?” the girl said, putting her hand up to her mouth, trying not to burp or throw up.
“I already am.” Carpenter dropped the potato with a vile, wet thud. In an instant, like a magic trick, his butterfly knife appeared in his hand, as if on springs, from his sleeve. He flicked it open before they even recognised it as a weapon. The blade glinted in the dull light squeezing through slats in the storefront window. Before a gasp could be uttered, he threw the knife. It planted itself, up to the hilt, in the young girl’s forehead.
She stumbled drunkenly, losing her feet. She put a waif-like hand up to her face, feeling a hot, sharp pain in her head and a growing numbness spreading out all over her body. She collapsed like a puppet with the strings cut. There was only a slight trickle of blood from her head and she was gone. Lying on her side, her eyes lolled back like those of a doll. Her skin was maudlin, becoming waxy; she looked unreal. All the life drained from her in an instant: a human mannequin.
Her boyfriend dry swallowed. Relief mixed with abstract horror and loss. Emotions, like the three stooges, tried to force their way through a small door and ended up at a standstill in a silent, empty pause.
The tanned man in the overalls jumped back, shrieking like a child.
“What did you do that for? What did she do? Who are you, man?” He forced back angry tears, but still some moisture leaked out of his face, from a raw feeling of waste: a disgust at seeing mortality right in front of him, played out like a pantomime.
“She was bit; I could smell it on her.” Carpenter kicked the leftover potato on the floor.
“She was what?” her boyfriend said, his face wearing a stony vacancy.
“Take a look,” Carpenter said, his grin dipping to a knowing, arrogant half-smile.
The man in the overalls knelt down over her small body. He looked up, with a concerned look, at the girl’s boyfriend who nodded shakily and took a few steps back, edging towards the window of the storefront.
The man in the overalls looked her up and down, checking her arms and her ankles, turning her head to either side, moving her hair to look at her neck. The lifeless, heavy rocking of her head made him feel even more nauseous.
“Nothing. I can’t see shit, you fuckin’-!” the man in the overalls said. without looking up. His stale rage simmered.
Carpenter sighed and cracked a little disaffected laugh: “Oops.”
“‘Oops’?” her boyfriend repeated. His face twisted into a grotesque mixture of vicious sorrow and bitter rage.
“What can I say? Can’t always be right.” Carpenter grinned again, beaming at her boyfriend, feeding on his rage. It sent a shiver up his spine, his blood swelling the way he liked; he could control it. “I made a mistake, man, come on. I had the best inten-” He couldn’t even finish the sentence before he started sniggering uncontrollably.
The boyfriend’s face twisted and aged. The man in the overalls took a step back from a ticking bomb.
The boyfriend stared, frozen, his anger glazing into a furious quietus.
“So-” Carpenter said flippantly, dropping his arrogant grin like a marionette mask. “You gonna give me my knife back or do I have to come over there and get it?” He smiled again, showing them a quick flash of violent teeth.
TJ looked into the viewfinder of the small handycam. There was something recently recorded. The low battery sign flashed in the upper right-hand corner of the small screen. TJ pressed playback and a shaky, low angle, panning shot of the small town at night began to play.
“Here we are again… Err, what are we doing tonight?” Roy said, his voice nasal behind the camera lens.
“Same thing we do every night, Roy.” The camera settled shakily on Zed who stood, leaning on the side of a beat up-looking Camaro, smoking. “Get fucked up and avoid line-dancing.”
“The smell of barbecue fires dying. All that coal and peat-smoke; I think, I fucking love that smell: one of the perks of living in some piece of shit hick town, I guess.” The camera panned along to the backseat of the car and poked sneakily through a gap in the window. Gill was in the backseat, hunched over the trashy girl from the eviscergrator demo. He lifted a torn ‘Misfits’ T-shirt to cup a pale, humble, pierced tit.
She wore a pair of those stripy leggings and a small waist skirt. Gill was wearing a pair of loose-fitting jeans and a plaid shirt, open, with a grey shirt, with an obscure band insignia, underneath.
The girl had one eye that wasn’t covered by an obnoxiously pink bang. It was closed as he nibbled her neck. Upon feeling the harsh gaze of the camera’s eye on her, she opened her one eye and bared a set of small, sharp teeth and pushed Gill off of her.
“Gill, that little shit is watching us again,” she said, spitting mad.
“Dude, come on!” Gill got up and wound the window up, blocking Roy’s view. Roy chuckled and rolled the camera back towards Zed who was finishing his cigarette. He dropped it on the pavement and crushed it out under his van sneakers.
Zed wore a leather jacket, despite the clement weather, over another plaid shirt, with a pair of tight-fitting black jeans.
“Let’s get the fuck outta here,” Zed said as he climbed into the driver’s seat of his car. He turned his head to the camera. “You coming or not?”
“Oh, yeah. Shit,” Roy said as he scrambled over to the other side of the car.
A jump cut later, Roy zoomed into a pack of Cheetos. “Zero trans fats, hmm?” he said as he panned up to look around the liquor store.
The camera panned around, observing the other customers. The store was half-empty: just a couple of the usual shit-kickers, buying Johnnie Walker, cigarettes and pig snacks. The store clerk was some redneck asshole that ran the place with his brother. He spent most of his time jerking off in the back. There was a hooker coughing outside; he watched through the brightly lit glass storefront. She hocked up a giant ball of phlegm and cast it towards the glass. He panned away, making a retching sound behind the camera.
The camera panned back inside the store. Roy walked over to Zed who was at the counter picking up a bottle of whiskey and a case of beer. He turned his gaze towards Roy wearily. “Can you put that fucking thing away for ten minutes?”
“Sorry, man, it’s just a habit, you know.”
“Uh huh. Well, unless my dick is hard or there’s a zombie stump to be fucked, keep that shit out of my face. I’m in no mood man, ya hear me?” He was tired; frustration broke up his voice a little.
“It’s cool; I’ll be over by the snacks when we’re ready to go.”
The camera whipped around; Roy muttered under his breath as he broke line of sight. “Jeez, what got up his pee hole?”
He pushed through the outside door of the liquor store, with a nice clinking sound, the camera down by his side, watching his feet as he went through the door.
He picked it up as he got into the night air. He heard a sloppy, slapping sound. He panned up to see Gill, once again, macking on the emo girl, around the side of the store.
Roy was a good twenty feet away and was yet unseen.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see someone leaning against the brick wall of the gas station. The sound of crickets rang out; he caught the cusp of a conversation.
The hooker was on a small cellphone, smoking and picking at the corner of her eye, which was caked almost shut with some spider leg mascara. She wore a tight cocktail dress and high leopard print boots and a puffy jacket to cover her shoulders. She had dirty blond hair and had been fairly attractive at some point in her life.
“Yeah, I think I’ll take one more and knock it off. I feel like shit run over twice.” She took another drag of her cigarette and looked around the corner. “I was up on I90, pretending to have car troubles. Some trucker stops to help me; sucked his dick for fifty bucks.” She took another drag of the cigarette, then wiped her runny nose with the back of her hand, making a grotesque slurping, sniffing sound. “Yeah, no, nothing happened, but when I got out the cab, I heard this weird noise. He was transporting something… I have no idea. It was like a cattle cart or something, I dunno. But there was definitely something alive in there; I could hear it.”
The camera kept a focus on her, zooming in and out awkwardly. “So being the genius I am; I think it must be horses or some kind of livestock. I stick my hand in there and something bit me, hard.” She lifted her bandaged hand up to the phone. “Fuck. I just lifted my hand up to show you for some reason. I’m really losing it. One more and I’m going to bed. OK, see you later, baby. Kiss Wendy for me – mwah.” She slipped the phone back into her purse and started to trace the edge of the building as she walked closer.
“Shit,” Roy said, as he had to circle around to avoid being in her path. He ducked behind Zed’s car. She got to the corner before she noticed Gill and his girlfriend making out. Roy was too far away to hear what was said but zoomed in all the way. The hooker was standing in a suggestive pose and getting the couple’s attention in as crass a way as possible.
Reflexively Gill’s firecracker of a girlfriend pushed away from Gill, knocking him into the wall as she launched at the hooker. The camera panned a little and zoomed in to focus on the exchange. The little emo girl got right in the skank’s face. The hooker laughed and shoved her onto the pavement.
The little emo girl got up, even angrier, and launched at herself at the hooker again. The camera turned to the right a little as Gill got his wits about him. Realising he ought to step in and restrain his rabid girlfriend, he grabbed her, kicking and screaming, flailing and grabbing at the hooker’s cheap extensions. The hooker scratched and bit and spat at the trashy emo girl who was swearing and trying to throw shit at the fleeing hooker.
Roy let out a little snigger before another awkward jump cut put him back in the car, driving back. Roy was in the front seat, looking back into the back passenger seat at the happy couple.
“That fucking whore bit me!” the girl shrieked.
“Come on, Christie, you didn’t have to fucking jump on her,” Gill said despondently, looking out the window. His brow furrowed as far as it could go without jumping off his head.
“Oh, so you’re taking that fucking whore’s side? That’s fuckin’ typical; you’ll take a whore’s side over mine!” She continued to talk, in a shrill voice, flicking her bangs out of her eyes with an angry swish of her head. She rubbed at the faint bite mark which had just broken the surface of her skin. There were faint scratches up her arms, which showed a little tease of red. “I think she fucking spat in my mouth; I might have aids; I might have fucking aids and you’re taking her side!” she said, wiggling her head back and forth for emphasis.
The camera panned back to Gill dramatically. Roy had to stifle a gleeful chuckle as he recorded the whole thing; the schadenfreude was too much to bare.
“Maybe if you didn’t act like a fucking nut-.” Gill stopped mid-sentence, already regretting what he’d said.
“Did you just call me a fucking nut?” Christie said, looking at the back of Gill’s head like she was looking for a good place to hang a dart board.
“I just mean-“
“No, you just called me a fucking nut,” she said, digging the same tone deeper for effect.
“Can we just drop it?” Gill said, turning to furrow his brow at her.
“I fucking hate you and I feel like shit. That hooker probably gave me hep C or something; you need to take me to the fucking hospital or I’ll get out and walk.”
“We’re not going to a fucking hospital!” The camera snapped back to the driver’s seat. Zed smoked with the window open, rubbing his furrowed brow. He kept his disinterested eyes tangentially on the empty suburban backroad, casually lit, as it was, with a few desolate street lights and a pregnant moon limping overhead. “Everything is cool; just chill the fuck out; I’ll handle it.”
“Dude, what the fuck?” Another jarring cut and all TJ could see was a bloody bathroom floor. Cracked shards of mirror lay in the blood on the little screen of the handycam.
“Don’t fucking film this dude, I’m serious!” Zed screamed; his voice was shaky and his shirt was off; blood was on his wrists as he reached for the camera.
“What the fuck happened, dude?” Roy said, his voice shrill with fear and disgust.
He sat the camera down on Zed’s bed. It was angled towards the bathroom. “Jesus, fuck!” He could see the emo girl’s stripy tights from the door; she was on the ground and there was blood, a lot of blood.
“She came at me, man. She was, like, fucking, I dunno man!” Zed shook as he spoke, tears forming in the corners of his eyes as he sniffed uncontrollably. “I just hit her and she went down, spewing this fucking shit from her mouth.”
“Where’s Gill?” Roy asked, cutting through his frenzy.
He sniffed again and took a deep breath. “She fucking bit him and he locked himself up in the garage. He’s fucking lost it, man!”
“Stop fucking snivelling man; don’t you fucking get it? It’s happening again; it’s really happening. This is fucking awesome! This is what we wanted!” Roy said, picking the camera back up. His hands shook with excitement as he pointed the camera at Zed at a jaunty angle. “This is it for real, Zombie Stump Fuckers - we can do this.”
“We’re fucked, dude,” Zed said as he looked past the camera, his face wet with sweat and terrified tears.
“What the fuck are you talking about, man?”
“We don’t have shit,” Zed said as he fought back tears.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“We sold all the fucking weapons in the store. All we have are those retarded cheese grater things and Gill’s locked up with them.” Zed’s face strained as he slicked his hair back.
“You sold all the fucking weapons?”
“Yeah, well, this is a business, kinda, and I didn’t really think it would ever happen again so...” Zed choked on his words, sniffing and coughing as his face leaked.
“Oh fuck, you are a fucking idiot; we are fucked! We are fucked! We are fucking fucked; we are fucking, fucking fucked!” Roy mumbled to himself and stopped dead. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, what was that, that fucking kid? The fat retard from next door? He had some cheap mall, swap meet shit, right?”
“Yeah, the momma’s boy next door. He had a sword and some other gay stuff; I don’t remember, dude,” Zed said, cradling his head in his hands.
“Ok, so we go over to his house and we ask to borrow some. Say we’re gonna use it in a show and give it right back to him. And then we bolt ourselves down in here until the army or whoever shows up,” Roy said, regaining some manic sense of calm. “What about your mom?” Roy said.
“It’s cool. She won’t be up ’til lunch time. We get the shit, deal with Gill and lock the place down; she’ll be too drunk to notice the shit’s hitting the fan.”
“Let’s do it. Gonna be smooth sailing after this, I’m sure of it, dude,” Roy said, putting his thumb up in front of the camera lens.