Thursday, October 20, 2011

A not-so-typical zombie apocalypse story: "Quiet Mornings"

For those of you that don't know, LineByLine is a writing community that posts a one-line, weekly prompt that must be used at least one time in your post.  This week's line is the same as the title of my piece:

"Quiet Mornings"

When she wakes, every nerve is instantly on full-alert.  She sits bolt upright but instantly regrets it when she bangs her head on the underside of the desk she’d slumbered beneath.  With teeth gritted she groans and presses both hands to her forehead.  It’s embarrassing, the number of times she’s shaken herself awake and injured one body part or another in her frantic scramble to make sure she’s as safe as she was when she went to sleep.  She was used to it, though, and these days the only thing it hurt was her pride. 

Not that it should matter, since a usual precursor to embarrassment is someone to be embarrassed in front of.  And the only person she traveled with didn’t care when she did something humiliating, as long as she let him sleep. 

Beside her, her companion squirms and fusses, but remains asleep.  With a sigh of relief she bushes two fingers gently across the four-month-old’s cheek, then climbs from beneath her hiding place to find them some breakfast.  What she carried into the office five days ago was running out. 

Her weapon of choice is a Louisville Slugger, the best damn stick of wood on the planet.  Her hiding place is a good one, one that’s given her more quiet mornings than any other place she’s found.  The office of the small, independent grocery store is hidden in the back of the loading dock and is fifteen feet in the air, she assumed so the boss (whoever he had been) could watch over all the peons beneath him.  The only way up to the office is a metal staircase, and the flesh-eaters seem to have trouble with stairs.  If push came to shove and she had to make a stand, there would be no better place.

The grocery store was almost picked clean when she arrived five days ago.  Baby food was one of the first things to go when the looting started; sealed in glass jars, it promised to last no matter how long the world was in total chaos.  Luckily her baby is still months from solid food, and baby formula is one of the few things that remained on the shelves. 

She wraps her hands around the bat and again feels a little guilty that she wants to name the baby.  The day before her son was born she and Kyle, her boyfriend and the baby’s father, promised to compromise on a name before she gave birth.

The following day the plague struck and her son was born.  Kyle didn’t show up at the hospital, apparently lost in the chaos of those first few days.  Without him, she wasn’t able name the baby; and she won’t name the baby until she finds him.

She swallows hard as she pushes the swinging door with her foot and takes a tentative step into the grocery store.  The periwinkle light of mid-morning barely illuminates the ramshackle atmosphere, but her eyes adjust quickly.  Her flats move soundlessly on the tile; she’d prefer the steel-toed boots she pilfered last month, but they’re incredibly noisy and make running difficult.  So she’d settled on the flats because of their stealth, and because she’d never take the chance of fighting a flesh-eater barefoot. 

She avoids what’s left of the canned good aisle; it was the first place she checked for food five days ago, and it was where she found the bodies.  Apparently there was a fight between scavengers for the canned goods, and each of them was too busy arguing to notice the flesh-eaters that snuck up on them.  Sure, the can of green beans they fought over was still there, but she isn’t that desperate.  Not yet, anyway. 

She turns a corner and almost gasps, but she learned months ago that breathing is a luxury, only reserved for times when safety is absolutely assured.  Her quarry is at the end of the crackers/chips aisle, where a box of Goldfish can sustain her for a whole day.  But at some point during their five-day hold out she and her baby ceased to be the store’s sole occupants.  A flesh-eater stands as still as a statue, facing the rack of food like it’s trying to decide what to buy.  

Her heart rate and breathing quicken as adrenaline slowly fills her limbs.  There’s no need to freak out; she’s taken down plenty of these things, and one that hasn’t noticed her will be a piece of cake.  Slowly she raises the motorcycle goggles from around her neck to her eyes and pulls up her bandana to cover her mouth and nose.  Days after the first infections she heard something on the radio about how scientists predicted that those who didn’t become infected after the first month would be immune, since the disease was carried in bodily fluids and was highly contagious.  She very well may be immune, but she isn’t taking any chances. 

She skitters to it as fast as her flats will take her, and just as the flesh-eater is turning its boil-covered, filthy face to her, she takes aim and swings for its neck.  Always the neck, never the head.  Movies and television put too much emphasis on the head.  The head is full of liquids that are ready to spew out with the slightest tap, and liquids carry the disease.  One quick strike to the neck takes them down just as easily and isn’t nearly as messy.

The flesh-eater gives one small grunt of acknowledgement before the bat connects.  Its neck makes a sickening yet satisfying snapping sound and its eyes roll back into its head as it collapses to the ground.  Her muscles warm and breath huffing, she quickly backs away and surveys the scene.  No fluids.  A clean kill. 

Avoiding the thing with her eyes, she takes the remaining four boxes of goldfish from the shelf and slides them into her backpack.  Without removing her goggles or bandana she stalks her way into the baby aisle and finds it empty.  There she stuffs her backpack with diapers and no-refrigeration-needed formula (refrigerated goods were the first to go) and breathes a sigh of relief as she removes her 'infection protection' and makes her way back to the office. 

She would never hear the sound over her boots.  Good thing she chose the flats.

Feet shuffling on metal.  And a tiny voice, crying. 

She’s been so stupid.  Of course if one flesh-eater wandered into the store, two could wander in just as easily.  It was why she always slept with the door of the office locked. 

Did she lock it before she left, looking for food?  No, of course not; she didn’t have a key.  Did she even shut the door, or was she been too complacent, too reassured to bother with necessary survival strategies? 

Damn these quiet mornings. 

She charges through the store and into the loading dock.  Another flesh-eater, one that used to be a woman, has tried to climb the stairs to reach her baby.  Its legs have slipped between the metal stairs halfway up and it struggles mindlessly to get free.  From the office she can hear her baby crying, and with a shudder of horror she realizes that she was stupid enough to leave without checking the baby’s diaper.  Of course he was going to cry, and of course it would attract wandering flesh-eaters. 

She leaps up the steps two at a time, ignoring the piercing sound her footsteps make on the metal, and brings the bat crashing down onto the trapped flesh-eater’s head.  At the last second she turns her head and squeezes her mouth and eyes shut.  A terrible crushing sound, like a prop comic smashing a watermelon, resounds through the loading dock.  She feels her shirt and pants splattered with ichor.  A few wet droplets strike her face. 

How could she be so stupid?!  What if the creature hadn’t gotten stuck?  What if she came back from foraging for food and found…

The thought makes her gag, but with her eyes closed she charges past the dead creature up the stairs, using her hands to find her way.  When she reaches the office she still barely opens her eyes, even though she knows she’s far from the thing’s corpse.  The baby is crying, but she snatches a rag from her stash of supplies, dunks it into her bucket of water, and then wrenches the lid off of the bottle of bleach.  The smell almost overcomes her as she wipes down her face.  She tells herself that she’s not contaminated, that the thing’s fluids didn’t touch her mouth or nose or eyes.  Please, dear God, not her mouth or nose or eyes. 

She strips and throws her clothes out the door and over the railing, then wipes down her hands and forearms with the bleach-covered rag.  Her decontamination is done in ten seconds, but even naked (except for her flats) and smelling of bleach she’s afraid to pick up her baby.  Just as she gets the nerve to pick him up the adrenaline mixes with the panic and she collapses into tears with her son clutched to her chest. 

After a few minutes, after she composes herself, she kisses her son and changes his diaper.  “Damn quiet mornings,” she swears with her bottom lip still trembling. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Brigit's Flame, Oct., week 3 - Title: "Dependent"

Brigit's Flame, Week 3 (October) post.
Compulsory Prompt:  "Prejudice" 
Additional Prompt:  "Homemade" 
Title:  "Dependent"

“I.  Don’t.  Like.  Her.”

Emer is nothing if not persistent.  Her arms are crossed over her chest in resolute defiance, her bubblegum-pink lips scrunched into a tiny point on her face.
“Oh, come on, Emmie, you barely know her,” I say as I button the last two buttons on my shirt.  “Won’t you at least give her a chance?” 

My eight-year-old daughter scrunches her forehead menacingly.  Her golden eyebrows have descended so much that they almost touch.   Though she thinks she’s menacing when she puts on the tough face, I see nothing but pure innocence and beauty in her.  “Daddy.  I.  Don’t.  Like.  Her.” 

This is the usual story when it came to my dating.  Since Emer was three years old it’s just been she and I.  Emer doesn’t talk or ask about her mother much, and the psychologist says I should encourage her to do so more often.  Dr. Sparkman says that talking about her mother and understanding why she left will help Emer come to terms with her life and may ease her issues with trust, security, and abandonment.

 But honestly, I never want to talk about Amanda, either. 

I button the top button on my shirt and flip up the collar so I can put on my tie.  “What’s wrong with her, honey?”

Emer lowers her eyes.  “Her name is Charlotte, daddy.  That’s not a name.  That’s a city.”

School is a struggle.  I’m there when the bell rings to start the day and there when she comes running out of her classroom at three-thirty, but any longer separated from me and my little girl is a nervous wreck.  “I think it’s a nice name.”

She looks up to me like I’ve just stepped on her heart.  “Not as nice as Emer, right?” 

Without bothering to flip my collar down I kneel and scoop my little girl into my arms.  “Of course not.  If I thought Charlotte was a prettier name, I would have named you Charlotte.  But your name is Emer, because that’s that prettiest name in the whole world.” 

Dr. Sparkman says that when I do things like this I’m not helping her, because it encourages her to believe that we can continue to be the center of each others’ worlds, and that doesn’t allow for independent growth. 

But what does that psychologist know?  I’m her daddy.  Of course she’s the center of my world.

“I don’t like her, daddy,” Emer whispers in my ear again.

I don’t date much.  Between my hours spent and work in the day and being with Emer every evening, I don’t have a lot of time for it.  When I do get time for the occasional date, they’re never very long; Emer gets extremely nervous if I’m gone for longer than a couple of hours.  So it’s always dinner or a movie, but never both.  And I never, ever bring a woman home.  Emer and I still sleep in the same bed. 

Emer was only eight years old, and she’d had a harder childhood than me by far.  It was no surprise that she saw every woman I might want to become involved with as a threat to our relationship.

Still holding my baby, I sit on the bed and place her on my knee.  She refuses to remove her arms from around my neck.

“Do you like homemade pizza?”  I ask her.  She nods into my shoulder.  “There’s some in the fridge.  I made it today while you were at school.  When Mrs. Wallace comes over to stay with you, she’s going to heat it up and eat it with you, and you’re going to watch My Little Pony together.  Does that sound like fun?”

After a moment of silence, Emer whispers, “Don’t go, daddy.”

And just like that, a fifty-eight-pound girl shatters a one-hundred-and-eighty-pound man like a piece of balsa wood.  For just a moment I consider caving, because I would love to spend my evening eating homemade pizza and watching My Little Pony with my baby girl.  But I need this evening out, and, whether she realizes it or not, Emer needs an evening without me.

The doorbell rings.  It’s Mrs. Wallace, right on time, and Emer knows it.  She clings tighter around my neck.  I bite my lip to keep in tears that appeared when Emer broke my heart as I slip my arms under her bottom and carry her through the house.  Mrs. Wallace is Emer’s usual babysitter, and after raising four sons of her own, I couldn’t ask for a more maternal woman.  She smiles at me when I answer the door and gently strokes Emer’s back.

“Hello, Emmie!  I’ve missed you!” Mrs. Wallace says cheerily. 

“Hi,” Emer peeps. 

“Emmie, I’m going to finish getting dressed while Mrs. Wallace heats up the pizza.  How about I watch the first part of an episode of My Little Pony with you before I go?”  I tell her.

For the first time in a few minutes Emer loosens her grip and looks me in the face.  “Will you eat some pizza with me, too?”

I’m going to have to explain to Charlotte why I pass on appetizers.  “Of course, honey.” 

In the bedroom I finish tying my tie and pick out a jacket to match my pants.  With the bedroom door open so Emer can see me, I can hear the whirr of the microwave as the pizza is warmed.  As I find my wallet and cell phone I look at the tangle of covers that my little girl hogged the night before and her pillow case with Twilight Sparkle, the magical unicorn, on it. 

Even on the best of days, my life is complicated.  It would take a special woman to understand and accept Emer.  And Emer would accept nothing less than an extremely special woman.  If Charlotte understood why I had no room for appetizers and why my shirt was wrinkled from the grasping arms of an angel, then maybe she was that woman.

And if not, I just happen to love homemade pizza.  And My Little Pony is growing on me. 

Brigit's Flame, October Week 2 - Title: "Seven Minutes in Heaven"

This week's prompt: That despairing feeling when the bus pulls away from the stop when you’re a street away.
This week's bonus prompt:  Disillusionment
Title:  "Seven Minutes in Heaven"

I knit my hands together as he opens his locker next to me.  Third period will start in exactly seven minutes.  He'll be going to Pre-Calculus, which is in the same hallway as our lockers.  That gives him plenty of time.

Sweat begins to spot my back and beneath my arms.  This always happens when I'm nervous.  It's one of the many things that I hate about myself.  My gigantic butt, fat legs, flat chest, unmanageably frizzy hair, and pudge-nose are at the top of the list, but 'nervous sweater' has rightfully earned its place.

"Hey, Tyler."

Tyler looks up from his locker and makes eye contact with me.  I divert my eyes and pretend like I didn't notice, like I couldn't care less that this gorgeous boy was looking at me.  As I remove my Chemistry book from my locker, I can feel myself sweating harder.

"Oh, hey Penny."

I want to tell him that I love him, that he's the most beautiful and genuine boy I have ever met, but of course I don't.  I never have, and something inside me tells me that I'm a big chicken and I never will.  You won't have to, I tell myself in response.  Today he's going to ask you to the prom.  

"So... um... what's new?" I ask him.

"Not much," he replies.  "Are you ready for the big project due in English III next week?"

Why hasn't he asked me yet?  Third period starts in four minutes.  "Not yet.  I still need to read the last act in Hamlet, and then I have to work on my rewrite of the first act to include the characters from Blood Princess."

Stupid stupid stupid!  He doesn't want to hear about your anime re-enactment of Shakespeare!  Ask him if he's got a date for the prom yet! 

As badly as I want to, I can't force myself to ask him that.  If he has a date and he didn't even considered asking me, I know that there's no way I can deal with the rejection in the middle of the hallway.  If I ask him, it will have to be at the end of the school day on Friday so I can have the entire weekend to cry and console myself.

But if I ask him and he doesn't have a date, I'll look like a desperate, love-sick idiot.

There are rumors going around that he's already going with Jennifer Whitaker, the prettiest girl in our Honors American History II class.  Even thinking her name makes me want to throw up, both from envy and sadness.  But it's okay.  They're only rumors.  

He says something else about our projects for English III, but I'm not listening.  As the seconds tick away, I feel my chances of going to the prom with Tyler Robinson slipping away.

Finally he closes his locker and takes one step toward his class.  "Well, I'll see you in fifth period, Penny!"

Wait!  I plead for him in my  head as the depression starts to set in.  You still have one minute!  But Tyler is already halfway down the hall.  Jennifer Whitaker steps away from her locker and the two of them walk into Pre-Calculus, laughing like they're the happiest people in the world.

He said he'll see you in fifth period, I console myself.  That's a good sign.  Maybe he's going to ask you then. 

I put on a strong face, even though I don't feel very strong.  "Yeah.  Maybe." 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Brigits Flame: Oct., week 1 - Baptized by Fire

The air under the floorboards was hot and cramped.  Every breath I took was just another mouthful of the same stale, damp oxygen, filled with the scent of wood and perspiration and mildew.  The thundering of my heart was so loud in my ears that I swore it would give away our position any minute.  Of course, such a thought was incredibly stupid.  No one else could hear my heartbeat, not even the seven other children crowded into the crawlspace with me.  We were completely concealed.
Unless they had brought the dogs.  God help us if they brought the dogs.

Heavy boots resounded slowly on the floorboards, less than an inch above my head.  They sounded like thunder from a storm still far away, one whose clouds were visible from miles away and whose rain was yet to be felt.  But this storm wasn’t distant, and we hadn’t had such an adequate warning as thunder and lightning and clouds.

“And you have not seen the eight Hofmann children?” Said a rough, gravelly, man’s voice.

“I wasn’t aware that the Hofmanns had children.” Mrs. Schmidt, the clockmaker, was a perfect liar, and could deceive anyone without the slightest waver in her voice. “They lived more than a kilometer from here, and I only saw Mr. Hofmann every few months or so when he’d need his watch repaired.”

No doubt the soldiers had searched the floor for a trap door into the hidden crawlspace, and no doubt they had come up empty handed.  It was common knowledge that almost all older buildings had secret hiding places such as this, but the clockmaker’s shop was a special kind of oddity.  Its hidden compartment was between the basement and first floor, and the compartment was in the basement’s ceiling, forcing one to climb up into the hiding place.  It was why Mama and Papa had asked Mrs. Schmidt to hide us when they left to secure our passage to Mama’s cousin’s home in London.

They had been gone a week, though they told us the trip would take two.  They were still alive, and they would be back for us.  I knew it.

The gruff-voiced soldier hadn’t responded, nor had he moved.  For just a moment I forgot he was in the room, and I became distracted by the sounds of the other soldiers frantically searching the basement for eight hiding children.  “You’re lying, Mrs. Schmidt.”
“I beg your pardon,” Mrs. Schmidt replied, instantly irritated.  “I will have you know that I am a staunch supporter of The Party and have divulged all my ancestry to the authorities.  I would never betray the Fatherland.”

I heard the other soldier ascend the stairs from the basement and I exhaled a sigh of relief, probably the fifth time I had held a mouthful of the same stale air.  I tightened my arm in triumph around my six-year-old sister, Anya, who made a tiny, fearful, mewling sound.  “Sir, we found no one,” one of the other soldiers told the one who was in charge, the one speaking with Mrs. Schmidt. 

A pregnant silence hung in the room, and I wished that I hadn’t allowed myself the small moment of triumph.  A rustling of leather and metal and the ominous clicking of the hammer on a pistol pierced the silence.  The cruel meaning of the sounds screamed louder than their muffled resonances could.  “Mrs. Schmidt, you have only one opportunity to tell us where the children are hiding.”

“S-sir!” Mrs. Schmidt flustered.  “You have searched my home and wrecked my business, and now you threaten my life!  Why, I have half a mind to find your commanding officer and…”

Thunder rang through the house, louder than anything I had ever heard in my life.  The floorboards muffled the sound somewhat, but it was still loud enough to deafen me with a sudden ringing in my ears.  Through the ringing I still heard a limp thump on the floor above us.

Anya curled tighter in my arms and mewled again, but I clapped my hand over her mouth and held my breath to keep my own tears inside.
“The Fatherland doesn’t need liars, pure-blooded or otherwise,” the soldier said, just over whisper.  A second later he said, louder, “Take anything of value, then burn it to the ground.  If they’re hiding here, all the better.” 

The sorrow for Mrs. Schmidt in my heart was instantly crushed with urgency and fear.  I looked to the second oldest, my twelve-year-old sister, Lenora, and found her face streaked with tears and her bottom lip trembling uncontrollably.

Mrs. Schmidt was dead.  I needn’t muddy the details with hope for the soldiers’ mercy.  And mama and papa were surely in London by now, trying to figure out a way to get the eight of us there in secrecy.  There was no one else who could save us.

Footsteps retreated from the house, and when they were gone my younger siblings all started crying, the seven of them together like a flock of wounded lambs.  “Shh!” I hissed at them as I willed away my own tears.  It was so dark between the floors that I wasn’t sure if any of them could see my face, but I glared at their shadows and showed them the sober determination in my eyes.

A lone set of footsteps thumped back into the house, accompanied by a sound of water being sloshed onto the floor.  Liquid dripped between the floorboards and spotted the wood beneath us, and with one sniff I knew instantly that we would not be lucky enough to have the house soaked with water.  The footsteps continued into the basement, and as I listened I pushed Anya out of the way and positioned myself alone on top of the trap door.  It had no hinges, which would have been visible from the outside; instead there were two wooden slats that held it into place, making it all but invisible from the basement beneath.
When I was sure the soldier was beneath me, I rose up on my elbows and toes, slid one of the slats out of the way, and then brought down my full weight upon the remaining slat.  Though I wasn’t a large boy for fourteen, I weighed enough; the wood splintered under me and I held my breath and tensed every muscle in my body as I fell from the crawlspace on the trap door.
When I fell upon the soldier, it felt as though I had been hit by a truck.  Though I had tried to prepare myself for the blow, all the air was ejected from my lungs and my entire skeleton shuddered as the man crumpled beneath me.  For a numb second I lay upon the ruined trap door, too stunned to speak or move, but the smell of gasoline in the basement shook me back to reality and I forced myself to my feet.  From the hole in the ceiling Anya and Lenora looked upon me, a strange mix of heroic elation and revulsion on their faces.
“Don’t lay there gawking!” I hissed at them.  “We have to get out of here!”  One by one Lenora lowered the younger siblings to the floor by their arms, until she dropped from the hole in the ceiling and landed nimbly on the trap door.  There was a satisfied spark in her eyes when her weight fell upon it and the soldier crushed beneath, who hadn’t moved since I had landed on him.

I looked away from the soldier and instead concentrated on the gasoline can he had dropped, which had emptied completely on the floor, and the steel lighter that had skittered from his hand and lay a few feet away.  I snatched it up and approached the stairs.  “As quietly as you can,” I told my siblings.  The younger ones had been staring, dumbfounded, at the dead soldier since they had emerged from the crawl space, but turned their eyes to me when I spoke.

Once I removed my shoes so I would make less noise, I slunk up the stairs and peeked onto the first floor.  It was empty, thank God; if there had been any more soldiers in the house they surely would have heard the commotion.  I motioned for my siblings to follow, and soon seven barefoot children were following me onto the first floor.

Mrs. Schmidt lay in a heap on the floor, between two dark trails of gasoline.  She was curled into a ball away from us, thankfully, and lay in a pool much darker than the gasoline around her.  I snapped my fingers once and my siblings’ eyes shot from her to me, and with my fingers I commanded their eyes not to waver.  Seven scared children all nodded, but said nothing. 

I skulked to the front door, which the soldier had left open, and looked out into the street.  It was abandoned, but I could hear the small group of soldiers in another business a few meters away, no doubt being just as evil and cruel as they had been to Mrs. Schmidt in their pursuit of the Hofmann children.  With a motion from me, Lenora led the six younger children out the door and around the side of the building.

When they were clear I took one last look into the clockmaker’s shop and the motionless woman who had given everything to protect eight children that lived more than a kilometer away.  I prayed for God to receive her and to forgive me for bringing such a fate upon her just because she had the best hiding place in the village.

I struck the lighter and tossed it back into the building, onto one of the dark streaks of gasoline.  A ribbon of fire instantly surged to life and ran across the floor like a wild, reckless child.  Before the fire and sadness and fear could transfix me I darted away from the door and around the back of the building, where I found my siblings waiting for me.  The eight of us ran for the nearby woods as if we had the Fuhrer’s entire forces at our heels.

If we were lucky, we would get to the road to London and find Mama and Papa before the dogs found us.

If we were lucky, word would reach Mama and Papa that the Hofmann children had not been found and were on the run.  

If we were lucky, Mama and Papa had made it to London.

If we were lucky, there would still be a London for us to run to.