Chapter 44: Aftermath
Eli slowly lowered himself from the gap in the ceiling, and as quietly as he could set his feet down on the tiled floor. He crouched low and took small steps to keep his shoes from squeaking or his footsteps echoing too loudly in the large, open room. He rounded a corner and found himself staring down the hallway from the night before. Far away, quite some distance down, he could still see a few of the creatures milling about.
They mostly stood around an open doorway, which Eli figured to be the classroom they had used the night before to escape. The rest of the creatures would be inside the classroom. Or, at least, so Eli hoped.
He stepped over to the wall on the far side of the hall, which was lined floor to ceiling with metal lockers. He took a deep breath and let it out, wondering to himself how many times a person could let themselves end up in pretty much exactly this situation.
Raising one hand, he began banging it rhythmically against the nearest locker. For some reason, the only thing he could think to shout to the beat was a commercial jingle he remember from another life time.
“Hey! Hey! Señor Buffett! Come and eat! Come and feast!”
It was definitely working. The creatures outside the room began turning to face him, and others were already stepping out of the classroom in search of the noise’s source. He kept singing and banging on the locker until the group started running for him, and then he turned and set off at top speed back in the direction he had come.
He rounded the corner and headed down the hall straight for the first open doorway. He didn’t need to turn around to know the creatures were following them. He could hear the rumble of their footsteps and their inhuman moaning and growling as they barreled down the hall after him.
Eli entered the room and kept on running, down through the outer office to the room on the far wall. The furniture in this last office was already perfectly stacked to allow Eli to keep running while climbing up onto the furniture. They had spent quite a bit of time that morning stacking and restacking the furniture while Eli attempted various runs from the outer office to the inner office, until he was fully confident in his ability to catch the furniture mid-run and use it to propel himself towards the ceiling.
With one foot, he caught a turned over chair and used it to push himself up to the seat of a standing chair. Still running, he reached the top of the desk, went up onto a chair standing on the desk, and then leaped off that as hard as he could. He reached out, stretching as much as he could manage, and his right hand just barely caught onto Mac’s waiting arms.
Mac had been waiting for Eli up in the ceiling behind an opened tile square. He grabbed onto Eli’s reaching arm and immediately began hauling the young man up with him. Eli kicked his feet up against the wall as he tried to use it to help push himself upwards. The first of the zombies was already entering the room. The furniture was confusing them, and in their haste they were tripping over it and spilling around the room. As they piled up, it became increasingly easy for others to push past the fallen and the furniture and reach out for Eli. He could feel them grabbing for his legs and shoes as they toppled to the ground, but a moment later he was up in the ceiling space next to Mac.
They quickly shoved the tile back into its place, covering up the hole they had made and cutting off the zombies’ view of them. On the far side of the offices, the others would be letting themselves down from the hall Eli had exited moments earlier, and quietly shutting and barricading the door to the outer office, trapping all the zombies inside.
At least, so Eli hoped.
They made their way carefully through the tiny crawlspace in the ceiling. The slightest misstep and they could break open another ceiling tile, or, worse, send themselves falling into the frenetic mosh pit of undead waiting for them in the office below.
Both Mac and Eli managed to make it to the exit hole without incident, and dropped out into the open area below.
The plan had worked perfectly, and certainly enough the door to the office area was closed and most of the zombies had been trapped inside, unaware that Eli was no longer in there with them. A few stragglers were roaming about, having lost the scent of their prey a little earlier than the others, but Amber and the rest of the group were making quick work of these. By the time Mac and Eli dropped out of the ceiling, the others were finishing off the last of these stragglers.
Their work done, Aliyah turned to Eli and gave him an annoyed look. “Señor Buffett?” she said, her tone dripping with irritation. “Really?”
“What?” Eli asked, innocently. “It was all I could think of in the spur of the moment.”
“Yeah,” Daina chimed in, stepping away from a zombie her and Jay had just taken out. “There’s a part of my old life I thought I’d never hear again.”
“Well then, you’re welcome,” said Eli, a bit snippily.
“Let’s just get out of here,” suggested Gabriel. “I have most certainly had enough of this place.”
The others wordlessly nodded their agreement and a moment later they were all headed for their original entry point and for the vehicle waiting for them just outside.
The day was clear and bright, almost as though the universe was attempting to stand in complete irony of the nightmare they had been through the night before. They piled into the van and Aliyah turned it around to head it back toward the gated community and their lost equipment.
The journey back to the neighborhood took noticeably longer than travelling the same path had the night before, but this was due to Aliyah not pushing the vehicle at the same break-neck pace she had during their escape. Even still, it was less than a half hour later that they were pulling up to the house where they had been attacked.
It wasn’t difficult to figure out which house it was they needed. It was the one surrounded by carnage.
They slowed to a stop and everyone climbed out. They all stood there looking around at the bloodbath before them, looks of horror clearly readable in each and every expression. They had lived through all of this the night before, but nobody really had a clear idea of the true extent of the devastation until they saw it in the light of day.
“This is terrible,” said Daina. Everybody could only nod their agreement.
“Well,” Aliyah said, clapping her hands as if to snap everyone out of their shock, “we need to get to work. We’re burning daylight. Let’s see if we can find our stuff and get out of here.”
At Aliyah’s prompting, they moved as one to the side of the house where their SUV was parked. They tried the doors, but they were locked.
“Figures,” grumbled Aliyah. Then, louder, she added, “All right, we’re gonna need to find the keys. Spread out and,” she paused and made a face like she was having a difficult time swallowing her own words, “and… search through the corpses. One of them is bound to have them.”
Eli grimaced at the gruesome thought, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he simply followed the others and began checking all the bodies for pockets and the general area around the remains for any sign of the missing keys.
Aliyah approached Eli and pulled him away from one of the corpses. “Hey,” she said, “let’s check inside, see if the keys are in there and make sure there aren’t any stragglers.”
Eli swallowed hard. They still did not have any weapons beyond the silverware they had stolen from inside the house, and the thought of fighting off an assailant with nothing but a fancy dinner fork wasn’t exactly appealing, but he nodded his head and followed after the woman.
Stepping inside almost immediately brought back unpleasant memories of the night before. Eli felt almost claustrophobic as they started the search. In the first room, what had once, in another lifetime, been a home office, Aliyah found a long, lethal looking letter opener that she took as a weapon. In one corner Eli found a fairly sturdy looking cane and decided to keep it. They continued through the house, checking room after room and making sure to keep within line of sight.
In the master bedroom, Aliyah was digging around the nightstand and Eli was doing his best to check under the bed in the dark when they heard a thump.
Eli sat straight up and his eyes met Aliyah’s. She pressed a finger to her lips and then pointed in the direction of the bathroom. Eli nodded and followed her into the room. The bathroom was expansive, with a long sink along one side and the shower on the other. On either side of the shower were two walk-in closets. The door to one was open, but the other was shut. Aliyah pointed to it and then herself. She then pointed at Eli and to a spot on the floor just outside of view from inside the closet. Eli nodded his understanding, and she stepped over to the closet door while he got in place. Her hand reached out for the door handle and hovered over it, hesitant. Her eyes again met Eli’s and he nodded his head, raising his cane in preparation.
She snapped her hand around the handle, twisted, and yanked the door open.
Eli stepped in, cane ready to swing, and then froze.
Inside the closet was a teenage boy. He had clearly run into the closet in a hurry and gotten himself wrapped up in some of the clothing. He held up his hands in front of his face defensively, and cowered.
Eli lowered his cane and took a step back from the frightened child. “I don’t think it’s loaded, kid,” he spat.
The boy lowered his arms and stared at the pair in sheer terror. “You’re… you’re not gonna kill me?” he asked.
“Why would we kill you?” asked Aliyah.
“I dunno,” said the kid. “You’re black?”
Aliyah’s eyes went wide and she raised her letter opener as though she in fact was planning on stabbing the young man with it.
“Woah, okay,” said Eli, reaching up and grabbing her arm and trying to force her back. “Just, just a moment, okay?” He turned to the young man, who was back to cowering. “Hey,” he said as he pushed down on the boy’s arm, attempting to lower it. “Hey, it’s okay. You can talk to me, right? I’m not black.”
The boy lowered his arms and looked at Eli with some doubt. “Yeah,” he said slowly, hesitantly. “But you’re not exactly Christian, either. Are you?”
Eli’s eyebrows went up and he grit his teeth in an attempt to bite back his anger. “Let’s just say I’m the guy saving you from the angry black lady who wants to fill your racist, white trash hide with holes. So do you want to talk to me, or should I let her back in here?”
He leaned aside to let the boy get a good look at Aliyah, who was making a display of inspecting her new letter opener.
“Y-you,” the boy said, pointing at Eli. “Definitely you.”
Eli smiled mockingly. “Good. Now, tell me. Are you alone here?”
The boy didn’t take his eyes off of Aliyah as he nodded his head. “All the others… they all met those… those wolf things. I hid in here all night hoping they didn’t find me.”
“Do you know where the stuff they took from us is? Or the keys to our vehicle?”
The boy shook his head. “Did they take something from you? I didn’t know.”
Eli sighed. He glanced at Aliyah, frowning. She stepped a little closer. “Maybe I should be asking the questions…” she started.
“Wait!” The boy raised a hand again and scooted backwards a little. “I… I just remembered. They took a bunch of bags upstairs to the room at the end of the hall. I just figured they had gathered supplies, but some of it might be your stuff. That’s all I know. I swear!”
Aliyah smiled wickedly. “All right,” she said, waving at Eli as she turned to leave. “Get him out of here.”
“Wait, what are you going to do with me?” the boy protested as Eli pulled him to his feet. He continued to resist as they led him through the house and outside.
The rest of the group had finished going through the bodies, and Gabriel had even gone through the effort of dragging the remains together into a group, and he now stood over them, head bowed and hand raised, lips moving. It took Eli a moment to realize he was praying over them.
“Who’s this?” Amber said, stepping over to the trio.
Aliyah nodded her head at the gathered bodies. “He was with them.”
“Is he coming with us?”
Aliyah looked at the boy, who had not looked away from the rows of corpses. “Were these all of your people?” she asked.
He shook his head slowly. When he spoke, his voice cracked. “No. There are others back home.”
“Can you find your way back to them?”
Aliyah looked back at Amber. “He’s gonna have to find his own way. We are not babysitters.”
“Can… can I…?”
Aliyah waved him away. “Go on.”
He started away from them, but Eli grabbed him by the arm before he got very far. “Hey,” he said, “it should still be part of the full moon cycle tonight, which means the wolves will probably be back. Make sure to lock yourself away somewhere before nightfall, okay?”
The boy nodded and Eli let him go.
“I found the keys,” Amber was saying, holding up blood covered keys.
“Good. The kid says our stuff might be upstairs.”
“Okay. Let’s go get it.”
Amber, Aliyah, and several of the others hurried inside. Eli stood watching Gabriel and the young boy they had found. Gabriel had finished his prayer and made the sign of the cross. He stepped over to the boy and placed a hand on his shoulder, though the young man quickly pulled away.
“I have prayed for their souls,” said Gabriel.
“I doubt they’d care for you being the one to do that,” said the boy, his voice bitter with rage.
Gabriel looked a little hurt, but said nothing more. He stepped back toward Eli.
Eli looked to the preacher and said, “I don’t know how you can pray for them, how you can show them respect. They’re a bunch of sexist, racist, psychopaths who would not have done the same for you.”
Gabriel shook his head sadly. “We are all children of God, Eli. Even if some of us have chosen to stray from the path.”
Eli was shaking his head. “Look around you, Gabriel. Look at this nightmare of a world we live in. How can you still believe that God exists? Or that, if he did exist, that he hasn’t completely forsaken us? I mean, if he does exist and he’s not lifting a finger to help, he has to be a serious dick.”
“When things go wrong, it is always easy to blame God. But when things go right, we always praise our own industriousness. But don’t you see it’s the same? God gave us free will. There cannot be strings attached. If he interferes at all, then that limits our free will. Like the old saying about teaching a man to fish, God gave us the tools to help ourselves. But while tools can be used to build, they can also be used to destroy. Just the same, man has the ability to do good, but he also has the same ability to do great evil. And you know as well as I do that this, as you say, the nightmare world in which we live, it was not created by God but by man.”
“And so your god sees that as being fair? For the entire world to be punished for the sins of the few?”
“We were all cast out of Eden for the sins of but a single person. You look at this, and all you see is the evil that has been created. But can you not also see the good that has been done? The people, complete strangers, coming together and working together, helping each other when all they have to gain from it is their mutual survival? And consider your own argument in this light: is it really fair to deny all the good things religion has done because a few people have done evil in God’s name? Is it really fair to blame God for evil when he also gave us good?”
Eli crossed his arms and bit his lower lip. “I guess… I guess that just seems so defeatist to me. Like… like you’re saying we should just take comfort in the fact that good is possible, and so we shouldn’t worry about the evil. It just seems to me that you’re just, as Marx would say, peddling out an opiate to the masses.”
“So what if it’s an opiate, Eli? Again, you’re just condemning the negative because you refuse to see a positive. Life, even before this… this world we live in now, life is hard. Every day is a struggle just to survive. We all need some peace of mind to come from somewhere, and we all find it in our own ways. For some it is literal drugs, for some it is sex, for some it is media. Like you, right? All your video games and your TV shows and your movies? Are those not your opiate? Did they not help you just get through each day so that you would be willing to face the next? And what is the message that such things teach? They are full of praising violence, destruction, and sexism. And yet, you’re condemning religion for providing the same function to other people, despite the fact that it preaches messages of acceptance, kindness, and understanding? Is that really so much worse?”
Eli’s jaw was hard set. He wanted to keep arguing, but words failed him. He stared at Gabriel with watery eyes and said nothing.
Across the lawn came Amber. “Hey, found your bag,” she said to Eli, holding it out to him.
Eli stared at the bag for a moment, and then slowly reached out and accepted it. “Thanks,” he mumbled.
Amber stared at them suspiciously, her eyes darting from one to the other. “Is… something wrong?”
Eli looked to Gabriel, and then slowly shook his head. “No,” he said. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“Good. We got the truck packed, so let’s roll out.”
“Yeah,” said Eli.
They turned and headed for the vehicle. Eli stopped just short and looked over to the boy they had found inside the house. They had never even learned his name.
He sat, kneeling, above one of the bodies, and seemed to be weeping. It felt wrong to just leave him there, but he doubted the boy would come with them even if they offered. Everything about the world, in that moment, seemed completely wrong. How could God not have forsaken this world? How could He have created a world where all of this was even possible in the first place? Why bring people into a world that was only doomed to slowly destroy itself?
Eli wanted to say something pithy, or sarcastic, or even comforting for the sake of the young man weeping not even a dozen feet away. But no words seemed big enough.
He climbed into the SUV, and closed the door.