“I can feel it moving...underneath the ground.” Jeff said, looking up as Penny put pressure on the puncture wound under his rib cage.
“Shut up.” Penny urged between clenched teeth, her eyes darting back in fourth in the dark.
“They’re going to come back, we’re all going to die.” Jeff pressed.
“We’re all going to die here.”
“Shut up!” She said, her voice trembling as Jeff’s blood seeped into the cuffs of her periwinkle shirt. She looked down at him, the reflection of the moons highlighting the tears welling in his eyes. “We are going to get out of here, you just need to keep quiet.” Her tone softened.
As the others came back, she felt the ground violently shake beneath them, and two bright lights traveling towards them blinded her.
Earlier that week, Penny woke up face down in a patch of dewy grass. She raised herself slowly onto her elbows and looked around to find she was in a cemetery. The grass was a mixture of green and bright yellow like it had been over watered. Instead of gravestones, there were various human sized cement boxes placed atop the grounds, some stacked sloppily on top of each other. Instead of the treeline being pushed to the horizon, there were a few dozen leafless trees shadowing the lawn with their anemic branches. And in the distance was the sound of a strange and steady mechanical moan.
Penny squeezed her eyes tightly together as she pressed her hands into the wet grass and pushed herself upright, wiping her hands on her jeans. It wasn't unheard of that Penny woke in a strange place without any recollection of how she got there. She loved Jack Daniels, she loved red wine, she loved Vodka. In the past, Penny had woken up in a myriad of places- studio apartments, broom closets in 24 hour diners, strange cars, and on the rare occasion- warm in her own bed on 9th street. Usually, she had some idea as to where she was. There were always some clues- some blurry flashbacks to the events of the night prior, or a friendly face to let her know she was a few towns over. But this time- she was concerned. Did someone slip something in her drink? Why couldn't she remember anything about what had happened the night prior? The last thing that she could remember was falling asleep on her sofa watching a rerun of The Office.
She walked over to one of the unusual gravestones and with a flat palm she brushed away the dirt and moss. What she found underneath was a bizarre epitaph in a language that she didn't understand or recognize. And at the bottom was a sequence of numbers- “126.96.36.199” Her heart began to beat faster as she became more aware of her situation, and she raised a loose fist to her lips- something Penny did when she became afraid. Why did this cemetery look so foreign and strange?
There was a narrow brick path that led to a larger road and without hesitation, Penny left the strange cemetery. She needed to see something she recognized. Anything.
At the end of the brick path there was a road, a road that was appropriately named “Infirmary Street”. Despite the unkempt and jagged brick paths and overgrown shrubbery, the street sign looked as if it was freshly painted. At first, Penny walked down the side of the street in case a car drove past. But the longer she walked, she realized that no one was driving on the streets.
The first house that she had approached looked like an abandoned farm house- the paint was peeling and the front porch was empty. The second house looked exactly the same as the first house- the same peeling paint, the same design above the front windows, even the same split front porch step. It was disorienting, like being in a dream. Penny knew that she was walking forward- she looked down to check that she was putting one foot in front of the other- but the scenery was the same. Yet as she continued forward, the houses become closer spaced and she started to notice a difference in styles and conditions. The one things these houses all had in common, however, is that they were all abandoned. On an ordinary day, when faced with such a peculiar situation, Penny would have taken advantage of it. Whenever she saw an abandoned house along the side of the road, she would stop to riffle through their things. She wasn't looking for anything of value- that was never her intention. What she wanted was a peek into someone's life. The pieces of someone’s life that she could draw from the contents of a drawer, or the mail that was left on the floor, or the things that were taped to the refrigerator told a far better story than any book she could pick up. Once she found a box of letters that a man in prison sent to his mother. She spent hours on the floor of the old colonial examining the elementary penmanship, and the promises that he would make to his elderly, and now presumably dead, mother. Penny just wanted to be an audience member when it came to society- she was never interested in being an active participant.
But her current situation demanded action. As much as she wanted to set up in one of the many abandoned houses and read through old newspapers, she couldn't. And this filled her with anxiety and despair- none of which could have been read through the scowl on her face.
At the end of Infirmary Road was a town, and Infirmary was eventually intersected by Main street. For the first time, Penny saw cars- but they were parked along the side of the road and covered in dust and moss to the point that she couldn't see inside the windows. There were lines of brick buildings stretching down in both directions. There were no signs differentiating the stores, and the doors were all boarded. The windows, however, were not boarded. When Penny pressed her forehead against the glass in hope of finding the poetic remains of a diner- with the chairs stacked on the tables and the specials still on the chalkboard- she was disappointed to find four walls and a turned over paint bucket. Each and every window portrayed a slightly different version of the first.
She turned the corner on to Main street, and decided to follow the signs that directed to the library. It was expected that an unmarked building housed nothing but walls and buckets- but the library had to have something. A library had to have a phone. And when she got to that phone, she'd call Cole.
Her mind began to drift to Cole, and lingered on the the creases next to his eyes. She imagined him pouring his coffee, and stirring the half and half with his index finger. As she thought about how he always had a half and half stain on his jeans in the exact same spot above his knee, she was abruptly pushed down by a manic force. There was no warning sign- no sounds of footsteps on pavement, no heavy breathing, no shouting. Shocked by the sudden burst of movement after a long morning of uncomfortable stillness, she instinctively threw her arms up around her head as she fell to the ground. After the shock had left her, she opened her eyes to see the back end of a dark figure running away from her. It did not take the obvious shape of a man- it had two legs that moved beneath it, but above that was just a murky and unfocused dilatation. The dark figure suddenly stopped, jumped from the street to the roof of one of the buildings like some comic book superhero, and disappeared.
She was in a nightmare, she had to be. In some dark and twisted sector of her subconscious lived that strange shadowy creature. In a sudden burst of panic and uncertainty, Penny flung her head against the door of one of the park cars. It made a squeaky ‘thump’ as it smashed against the glass, and a surge of pain radiated from her head into the back of her shoulders. Penny stepped back and rubbed her head. Either she wasn’t dreaming, of she was having the most realistic dream known to man.
Once she had reached the library, the enormity of it made her take pause. Why was it so much larger than any other building in the town? Most of the doors and windows were boarded except for the rear door. She peered inside, prepared to find nothing more than empty walls and miscellaneous garbage, and she wasn't disappointed. There was a solid door directly across from her, a school desk and an empty bottle of water.
Another dead end, it seemed everywhere was leading her no where. She turned around, defeated, and leaned against the door. Digging her palms into her eyes, she tried desperately to push out any remaining ounce of light and escape.
“Turn around.” A muffled voice said on the other side of the glass.
Her hands shot down to her sides and she turned around.
“Do you remember what happened?” He asked, his eyes affixed firmly on hers.
“No- do you?” She immediately regretted how snotty her tone came across.
“Do you remember who you are?”
“Uh- yeah. Can I just come inside?”
He nodded approvingly as he opened the door. “Welcome to The End.”