The Absence of Knowledge, Part 8: Siege Tower

 

He awoke to screams, as usual.

Sometimes, they were his own. But not tonight.

The absolute dark of early morning. His face numb from the cold. His fingers unresponsive. They crept like dying spiders – slow, stiff, uncertain — along the seam of his sleeping bag until they found the frigid metal tab of the zipper. He worked it back and forth, catching every broken tooth and errant thread, until the gap widened enough to let him free. He rolled to the edge of the bare mattress, and listened.

The screams repeated.

They were insistent tonight.

They were not going to let him sleep.

He stood up. He put a hand to his lower back. He pushed in and twisted at the hips until his spine cracked. A groan, fading into a sigh.

He counted the steps: Three to the edge of the bed. Turn. One and a half. Turn. Four to the door.

He ran his hand up across the wall. A soft plastic click. The lightswitch did nothing. It hadn’t for some time. Just an old habit.

The living room was mostly vacant. What furniture remained – no wood; all of that burned already – was shoved back against the walls. He’d cleared the space in preparation for an emergency escape that had not yet come. He moved through the room with the begrudging trust of the blind.

He followed the gradient of cold: It started at intolerable, and slowly grew to painful. He padded to the broken windows. Outside, on the expansive balcony, light. A relative term. A less complete shade of black. He found the insubstantial outline of his rifle, and set hands to it. He leaned out over the railing. He watched the darkness below. He listened.

Grunts. Heavy breathing. The scuff of a foot, missing a step. He tracked their progress. He kept the rifle close, locked his jaw against the chattering cold.

A woman broke through the wall of black at a full sprint. She skipped over an open manhole, skirted the dinosaur skeleton of a burned SUV, and slowed at the intersection to consider northbound Washington — too many cars, too many places she couldn’t see, too many variables — but chose westbound instead. She went to cut across the park. It was the right move.

She was fast, smart, and alert.

But she did not see the chains that hung between the bollards – the ones meant to stop vehicles from entering. It was just a small hop, to clear them. A few inches, and she would have disappeared into the trees before her pursuers could see which direction she’d went. But she didn’t jump in time. She caught both ankles and fell — momentum like a slingshot, firing her downward into the pavement — stunned. She rolled around. She moaned. She clutched her face. She tried to stand.

From the darkness, her pursuers. They closed on the woman with the wary confidence of predators. Somebody spoke. He could hear the sounds, but not catch the meaning. Their voices were low and casual. Hers was louder, more emotional. A threat and an answering plea. He settled the butt of the rifle into his shoulder and pressed the cold, lacquered wood to his cheek. The drama below now framed by the harsh geometry of his iron sights. The context of the scene had changed. It had a new, unseen director. Him.

The apparent leader motioned to one of the other pursuers, who approached. The woman cried out again. Both ignored her. The hunters looked away for a moment, and the prey took her chance.

Fast, smart, and alert.

She was halfway gone before they reacted. But she was slower than before. Her keen instincts clouded by the fall. There’s only so much adrenalin can do. She disappeared into another bank of shadow. The pack whooped and laughed and followed. They spotted weakness. They knew the hunt was over now, in all but formality.

And yet he still had a say.

He focused on the leader. A skinny one. Lanky. Dark hoody up. No details. Not even a person, just an abstract. It would be easy.

The prongs of his sights stabbed in at his target, urging his finger toward the trigger.

Without their leader, the other three might scatter. They might be distracted long enough to let the woman escape. They might not triangulate where the shot came from – not if there was only the one – and find him.

But then again, they might.

And bullets are finite.

And he did not know the woman.

The skinny one disappeared into the shadows. The others followed after. Their manic sounds grew faint.

He lowered the rifle.

He bent, and returned it to its place: resting in the corner, where the two low walls of the balcony met. He stood. He winced. He put his hand to his back and shook his head.

He walked carefully, broken glass crunching beneath his feet the whole way. When he reached the raised metal lip that marked the frame of the old, broken sliding glass door, he began to count his steps.

Ten to the doorway. Hand to a switch with no response. Four to the bed. Turn. One and a half to the edge. Turn. Three to the endtable.

He lowered himself gently, like easing a priceless work of art down from the bed of an unsteady truck. He felt for the cold metal tab of the zipper. He worked it up its stuttering, frustrating track. He laid down. He closed his eyes. He waited for the next screams.

Morning broke, and he wormed free of his bedding. He washed his face with the stale water from the bathtub, ran through a brief regimen of stretches, and dressed in the same set of clothes he wore every day. Thick wool socks, worn sneakers, jeans so old they had gone colorless, and a padded flannel shirt. He moved to the kitchen, and assessed the pantry. He stared at the bare shelves.

He listened to the wind whistle through invisible seams in the walls. The apartment had always been cold. Even back when its windows had been intact.

“Shoddy work,” he said, and frowned at the drywall. “I told you, Maria. I told you before we even moved in, this was shoddy work. Shoddy work for a whole lot of money.”

Nobody answered.

He shuffled to the living room and carefully hefted an aluminum ladder from its place against the wall. He bent with his knees, though even they cracked in protest. He carried the ladder to the edge of the balcony and balanced its feet atop the enclosing wall. He paused to watch the skyline. When he was finished, he glanced back toward the bedroom.

Inside, sitting atop the chintzy plastic IKEA stool that served as his nightstand, was a framed photograph. The photo was paper. The frame was wood. The only paper, and the only wood left in his apartment. The rest had been burned for warmth. The photograph showed a solidly built woman in her mid-50s, wearing a daisy blouse beneath a deepwater blue cashmere sweater — draped across her shoulders like it had been made for her, which, of course, it had. Plain gray slacks. A thin silver chain around her neck, sporting a single, unadorned iron carpentry nail. Her hair was black and untidy – the wind had caught it – and she was laughing. Behind her, the same low brick walls of the balcony on which he stood. Beyond them, the same skyline.

Almost the same skyline.

Buildings present in the photo were missing from his view. Others still stood, but were crumbling, charred, or broken. In a few, fires raged. Across the Hudson, New York City never stopped burning. Not completely. The river shimmered with oil. Bodies rafted past, swirling out to sea. The marina was shattered, abandoned. A sunken forest of masts, their tips just barely breaking the water’s surface. Beyond it, the park had grown wily and untamed. Nature had taken back the space. But across the bay, the Statue of Liberty stood unchanged.

He inhaled deeply, slowly, through his nose.

“Hell of a view,” he said. “Never worth the money, though,”

He looked west, at the black spot fixed in the sky. When it first appeared, it was no larger than a speck. Now it was the size of the moon. It never set. Never moved across the sky. Just grew. Imperceptibly, but incessantly.

He spat and turned away. He leaned over his balcony wall, surveying the others below. Portside Towers was vaguely pyramidal — wider at the base and narrower at the top. Its balconies were staggered, not stacked one atop the other. They fanned out beneath him like rice paddies. With just a 16-foot ladder stolen from maintenance, he could access them all.

He knelt to check a series of hashmarks scratched into the wall.

“Four down, one right,” he said.

He slid the ladder over the edge and gently lowered it to the balcony below. He sat on the wall and carefully swung his legs over. The apartment below had been the first one he cleared. Not even wood remained in there. The same with its neighbors to either side. His stop was four stories down – four awkwardly wrestled ladders, four slow and painful descents.

He had been mining the place for two days. The glass door was already shattered, its glistening jewels crunching beneath his shoes. He surveyed the living room, and shook his head.

The walls were covered in massive reproductions of comic book art. All portraits, all male, all stripped down to leather thongs and elaborate codpieces. They wore thick mustaches and leering smiles.

“These were your neighbors, Maria,” he said. “Not exactly the borrow-a-cup-of-sugar types.”

He headed for the kitchen first. He had left the cabinets open. He filled his backpack with their contents: Cruelty free albacore in olive oil, fair trade lentils, something called Quinoa that looked like rice but smelled like broccoli. The box proudly called it an ‘environmentally stable grain source.’

“Betcha feel silly now, eh fellas?” He asked.

He waited for an answer. When none came, he chuckled to himself, then resumed packing.

In the bedroom, he unhitched a small hatchet from his belt and set about dismantling a minimalist maple coffee table that had clearly cost a fortune. Now it was firewood. He collected the pieces and bound them with a bungee cord, then hooked the bundle to the webbing of his backpack. He climbed the ladder, dragged it up after him, reset it, and climbed again.

Four stories took their toll, and he wasn’t done. Two more to the roof.

He crested the final ledge and collapsed on the tarpaper. He waited until the spots disappeared from his vision, wiped the sweat from his forehead – already cooling to a nasty chill – and limped toward a series of buckets, pots, bowls, posts, and tarps. He held his lower back, favoring his left side.

He lifted the corners of shower curtains and cheap tablecloths – even a pair of rubber sheets, courtesy of the codpiece-and-mustache boys – so that the dew they’d collected could flow down, into the waiting containers below. He stooped – gasping, swearing – and retrieved the water, then transferred it all to a single plastic barrel that sat beside the access doorway. He unscrewed the lid. It was half full. He added his harvest, drank some for himself, then sealed it again. He turned back to the ladder to begin his short, painful journey home.

It rattled against the concrete wall, a sound like steel drums. Somebody was climbing it. Quickly.

He reached down and unclasped his hatchet. He shifted it in his palm and swung it shortly, twice, to settle its weight in his grip. Then he charged. His steps were low and quick. He breathed shallow, quiet, did not grunt or yell. He stopped a few feet shy of the roof’s edge, hatchet raised, panting thinly, and waited. The rattling stopped.

Wind. Bird calls.

He crept up to the ledge and peered over. The balconies below laid out like drawers in a jewelry box. All vacant. No ambushers waiting for him on the ladder. No potential attackers standing at its base.

He gave the ladder an experimental shake. It shuddered, but remained steady. Its feet planted firmly.

“Well it wasn’t the damn breeze,” he whispered.

He fixed the hatchet between his teeth and bit down. Butt on the ledge, legs dangling, weight onto the rungs. He froze. A few feet down, and his legs would be in reach of anybody standing on the balcony below, hidden just out of his sightline. He closed his eyes.

He sighed.

He wrapped his hands loosely around the side rails, then swung his feet out and slid the remaining length of the ladder. It rattled, shook, made a sound like a freight train crashing into a kitchen, and he hit the pavement flat-footed. A sharp intake of breath. The hatchet out of his mouth and in his hand.

He had shattered the sliding glass doors months ago. Hacked apart and burned the wooden lounge furniture. Stripped the fabric from the couch and armchair, burned their frames, and left the springs in a pile by the doorway. Waterlogged beige carpet in the living room. Dirty white tile in the kitchen. Beyond that: Only black shadows in the doorways, where the gray winter sunshine petered out.

With no immediate threat visible, he took a moment to straighten up sharply, put a hand to his back, and twist. It did not take. He did it again. A pop.

He sobbed and laughed at the same time.

“Well, it ain’t like I can just go see a chiropractor,” he said.

He limped into the darkened apartment. Weathered glass shards ground beneath his sneakers. He checked the kitchen first. Behind the island. In the fridge. He had stripped away the doors to the cabinets long ago, and could see at a glance they were empty.

In the living room: a floor lamp with an expensive-looking curve to the base, a colorful glass coffee table, a pile of rusting springs. He gave his eyes some time to adjust, staring into the dark until he could at least pick up outlines, then walked into the dark, his left foot dragging — shuffle stump shuffle – the hatchet held diagonally in front of his face. He paused at a Stonehenge silhouette, a door, and pushed it open. A cramped coat closet. Clear.

This unit mirrored his own in some ways, but it had an extra bedroom. His own hallway veered to the right. This one forked: Left to the guest, right to the master.

He slid along the wall, watching the far corridor. At its end, cold and dusty light from the big windows in the master bedroom. Quiet breath. Soft steps. At the threshold, he paused. He knelt as low as his creaking knees would allow, and ducked his head in. Left, right, and back.

No movement. He crept into the bedroom and pressed himself flat against the wall. He slid toward the windows, light at his back, facing the darkness.

He froze.

The bedframe was a solid piece of molded white plastic, bulbous feet and grand sweeping arches. It would not burn. He had let it be. The blankets, he had stolen. The several dozen oddly shaped throw pillows, he’d tossed in the far corner.

He had left the bed totally bare.

Now there was something on it.

He broke into a low and mostly silent run, only the crackling of his joints betraying his approach. A fast and vicious swing, more speed than force, and the hatchet sunk to its hilt in something soft.

Too soft.

He wiggled the axe, sending a small puff of tiny feathers swirling in the air. Dim secondhand sunlight catching the barbs, lighting them up like fireflies.

The throw pillows. The ones he’d left heaped in the corner, after stripping the bed bare.

The corner directly behind him right now.

The skin on the back of his neck danced, and he spun, almost in time to dodge the blow.

The sharp edge of something metal, but hollow. Too light. It dazed him, but didn’t put him down. A figure darted past, clipped its shin on an unseen bedpost, and went sprawling in the darkened hallway. It half-crawled, half-ran to the intersection –

In the snapshot of laundered sunlight, she shone like an angel. It made stark shadows from her cheekbones. It feathered her hair with white. It shone in her eyes — not an airy blue, but the complex and impenetrable color of the ocean. The same shade as the woman with the windblown hair, in the photograph on his makeshift nightstand.

This was not the same woman. This one was decades younger, much paler – no distant Spanish dusting her skin, as there had been with Marie – and forty pounds lighter. There was a desperate, refugee thinness to her frame.

The moment unfroze, and the girl bolted around the corner, out of sight.

“W-wait,” he called. His voice broke.

She didn’t hear him. Or she didn’t listen.

“Wait!” He called again.

He ran after her. He didn’t make the corner and put his shoulder through the cheap drywall. She was on the balcony, one foot already poised on the ladder.

She was fast.

“You’re the girl from last night!” He yelled.

She peered into the gloom, but didn’t see him. He moved carefully into the light and saw her eyes dart down to his hand.

He was still holding the hatchet – and the pillow he’d murdered. It was bleeding down.

“I’m normal!” He said. “I can talk. I’m not a thing.”

“Some of them can talk,” she said.

“They can?” He asked. “I’ve only seen them screaming.”

She didn’t answer. She looked to his hand again.

He tossed the hatchet away suddenly, like it had burned him.

“Would one of them do that?” He said.

She shifted her weight off the ladder and peeked at him through the rungs.

“No,” she said. “But not all normal people are good, either.”

He laughed.

“Tell me about it,” he said.

“Why do you want me to wait?” She asked.

He started to answer, but caught himself short and fell silent. He looked around at the furniture, stripped of wood. At the shelves, emptied of food. He stuck his jaw out.

“I guess I don’t,” he finally said.

Now it was her turn to laugh.

“That’s about the only thing you could’ve said to make me stay,” she told him, and let her long, thin fingers fall from the rung. Her knuckles were bulbous and scabbed. Her fingernails ragged and dirty.

“Listen,” he said. “I don’t have much here, and what I do have is mine. This is my spot – people have been trying to make me leave since before the world went crazy – and I don’t need company.”

She walked toward him, light, easy, wary. A deer moving through a clearing. The glass that crunched beneath his feet merely crackled below hers.

“I don’t believe that,” she said. “You were begging me to wait just a second ago.”

“I don’t beg anybody for anything,” he snapped.

“Hey,” she put her hands up, palms out. “Look, there’s nothing wrong with needing someone. There aren’t many of us left. I’m glad to see you, too.”

“Get moving, lady,” he said, and inched toward his hatchet. “It’s every man for himself these days, and I don’t know you from Adam.”

“One night, okay?” She said, and circled him, hands still up. “I just…I just need to catch my breath for one night. I won’t bother you. Maybe I can even help. I don’t eat much…”

He took in her slight body. All elbows and knees.

“One night,” he said. “I’ll get you some supplies – only the stuff I can’t use, mind you – and then come morning, you’re gone. You don’t tell anybody I’m here, and I never see you again.”

“Deal,” she said.

She held out her hand.

He took it. Frail. Paper-thin. Warm.

Together, they ascended – her first, him following with hatchet held in teeth – and harvested more rainwater. She drank deeply from a cheap cooking pot, just going to rust.

“This how you got up?” He asked, nudging open the access door.

“Yeah,” she said. “How else?”

“It’s dark in there,” he said.

“Sure is.”

“You made your way up here in the dark?”

“Of course.”

“All the way through the lobby, found the door to the stairs, and took every flight to the roof, all in pitch black?”

She paused while returning the pot to its place, just beneath a torn shower curtain. She looked back at him.

“During the day, you can see just fine in the lobby,” she said. “The windows are all busted out, plus somebody drove a garbage truck through the main entrance. Looked like it started a hell of a fire when it crashed.”

“It was on fire before it crashed,” he said. “So was everybody in it. Couple dozen of them. In the back. With the trash.”

“You were here when it happened?” She asked.

She duck-walked beneath the water traps and stood beside him. They looked out onto the bay. The Statue of Liberty, like a model somebody had set on the horizon.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve been here all along. We lived here. I lived here. Before. I’m not moving. Nobody’s gonna make me.”

She didn’t have a response for that.

“What about you?” He asked. “Where do you hole up?”

“I don’t,” she answered. She gave him a sideways look. “Not anymore. Holing up is dumb. No offense. If you stay in one spot, they’re guaranteed to find you. Trust me, I know.”

“Doesn’t seem like I’m the dumb one,” he spat at her feet. “You were the one running for your life last night.”

“So you saw all that?” She said.

“Heard it, mostly.”

“And you didn’t think to, I don’t know, help?”

“Lady, I said it before: I don’t know you.”

She scoffed. Crossed her arms. Looked away toward New York, while he watched the bay. They stayed like that for a quiet moment.

“Let’s get you something to eat,” he said.

He led the way to the ladder, and descended first. The hatchet clipped firmly to his belt. He hauled an old paint bucket full of water. She carried a green plastic pail, emblazoned with a starfish.

They built a fire in his kitchen sink. Sat on bar stools in front of it, watching the flames instead of talking. She ate tuna straight out of the can, while he poured dry quinoa into an old fashioned metal coffee pot, splashed some water in after it, and set it to cooking.

“I didn’t even get your name,” she spoke, after a particularly long and uncomfortable silence.

“I don’t see how it matters,” he said. “You’re gone tomorrow.”

“Jesus,” she muttered.

He studied the fire.

“You’re something else,” she said, after visibly fuming for a moment. “We’re still people. We have names. We talk to each other and help each other. That’s what people do.”

“That’s what people did,” he corrected.

He shook the coffee pot. Smelled the quinoa. It was earthy, in an entirely unpleasant way.

“We’re still alive,” she said. “At least, I am.”

“I didn’t much like people before all this,” he said. “Not much has happened to change my mind lately. Just look at those thugs last night, hunting you down in the street like it’s a game.”

She turned to stare at him.

“Those weren’t people,” she said, carefully. “Those weren’t anything like people.”

He stirred the fire.

“You really haven’t left this place at all, have you?” She asked.

“Not much cause-” he started, but she cut him off.

“You really don’t know anything-” she said, but it was his turn to interrupt.

“You don’t come into my house and start insulting me when I’m sharing my-”

“You don’t know anything!” She yelled. She threw the empty tuna can into the fire, sending up a volley of sparks. “The angry ones – the ones that just scream and charge – they’re kittens. Have you seen the still ones? The ones blocking every exit from this god damn island? The ones that don’t move until you get close, and then they move so fast you can’t see them – tearing you apart limb from limb with their bare hands? You them?”

“I don’t-”

“Even those ones aren’t the worst. You can trick the angry ones. Avoid the still ones. It’s the laughing ones that will get you. Those things chasing me last night weren’t human. Weren’t even close. The madness just took a different form in them. Sure, they can talk and reason – but they think everything is a game, especially killing, and they love to play.”

She slid from her bar stool and jabbed a thin finger at the broken windows.

“Have you even looked out there, lately? The angry ones are gone. They left weeks ago. But the still ones keep guarding all the exits. They’re keeping us in, so the laughing ones can play with us. That’s what you’ve been hearing out there – not ‘thugs’ taking advantage of the situation. Not human nature. Every single normal person I’ve met has done nothing but help and care for each other. Every single one! It’s only monsters out there, killing us off one by one. And you’re doing nothing.”

“Better them than me,” he said.

She bit the side of her lip. She looked away.

“Do you really mean that?” She finally asked.

“No,” he sighed. “I guess not. I don’t know anymore. Most of my life it’s just been me. I liked it that way. I was a firm believer in ‘if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself.’ It worked just fine, until…”

He gave the steaming coffee pot a shuffle. It belched out thick puffs of steam. He wrinkled his nose.

“Do you want this?” He asked her. He tilted the pot in her direction, to show her the contents. “Smells like somebody farted on some rice.”

She laughed.

“It’s quinoa,” she said. “It’s an environmentally st-”

“Stable grain source,” he quoted the box. “So they tell me.”

She laughed again, quieter, and took the pot from him.

“I used to be all about this stuff,” she said.

“Quinoa?” He asked.

“No,” she said, and looked around for something.

He pulled a plastic cup from beneath the counter and rattled the pair of forks inside. She took one.

“Environmental stuff,” she continued. “I only shopped at local co-ops. I drove an electric car. I signed petitions.”

She shook her head.

“Seems pretty dumb now, huh?” He asked.

“Maybe,” she said. “No. We didn’t know this was coming. We were trying to do the right thing. I think it’s the trying that counts.”

“Sounds like dumb to me,” he said.

She tilted her head while she chewed. She swallowed with visible effort.

“Until what?” She said. “You were saying you used to think it was every man for himself, until…”

She rotated her hand at the wrist, urging him to pick up the prompt while she continued to eat.

He stood, carefully. Palm flat against his lower back. He walked away.

Four to the bed. Turn. One and a half to the edge. Turn. Three to the table. He reached down. His hand found it unerringly, even in the absolute darkness. He reversed his movements, and returned to the small kitchen. The weak fire in the sink threw shadowplay on the tile backsplash. He handed the object to the girl.

It was a rectangular frame. Old, faded wood that had lost most of its stain. The glass was scratched. The felt on the back was peeling. The photograph inside was immaculate. It showed a woman with windblown hair and a careless smile. And an expensive sweater.

“Who is this?” The girl asked.

“Was,” he said. “That was Marie. My wife.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Everybody is,” he said.

She looked at the photo for a moment before handing it back to him. He set it on the counter, deliberate and reverent, making sure it sat well away from the fire.

“I don’t know what she saw in me,” he started. He stopped. He grunted. He began again. “We couldn’t have been more different. I was cheap beer and she was expensive wine. I was action movies and she was books. I voted Republican; she voted for those weird parties you never heard of. They said she only married me for my money – every dime, I earned myself…”

He paused to look at her. Waited until she nodded.

“And hell,” he continued. “Maybe part of that’s true. She always had expensive taste. I don’t think she could’ve taken living poor, like I grew up. That didn’t make her bad. It made her smart.”

She didn’t speak when he fell silent. She ate quietly, careful not to let her fork ping against the steel of the coffee can. The whistle of the wind. The rustle of the fire.

“Thing is, she could’ve had a thousand other rich guys,” he said. “That was always her world, and she owned it. The way those yuppies in their nice suits looked at her, back when we were young. I saw it. But she chose me. And I made her happy. She loved this place.”

He gestured around at the broken windows. The weather-stained carpet. The empty living room. The skyline across the river, black — save for the few spots where it was burning.

“She liked the view,” he laughed.

She didn’t join in.

“She always thought the best of everybody. Too trusting, I always told her. Naïve, I said, if she wasn’t in the room. But I wouldn’t have changed a thing about her for the world. She would’ve helped you last night. In the blink of an eye. Hell, if she was still here, I would’ve helped you, because I’d know she’d want me to. But she’s not here.”

“How?” She asked.

“Cancer,” he said. “Thank Christ she didn’t live to see this mess.”

He spat into the fire. It sizzled.

The girl nodded.

“It’s still not an easy way to go,” she said.

And he nodded.

They ate in silence. When they were done, he took the fork and coffee pot and rinsed them with water from the little green plastic pail. The kind a child would use to dig at the beach.

They stayed by the fire until it died, talking mostly about the way things used to be. Then he guided her through the dark, first to the bathroom, then to the bedroom. He dug beneath the frame for extra blankets.

“You can sleep on the bed,” he said, settling a heavy quilt on the floor.

“No way,” she said. “This is your place. And besides, I saw you holding your back. You need the bed.”

“I’ll be fine,” he said, automatically.

A quizzical silence.

“It is unbelievably cold up here,” she finally said. “I think we’d be better off sleeping together.”

He blinked. He swiveled to face where he thought she was, in the dark.

“Oh my god not like that,” she said, almost all one word. “Just for body heat. That’s how we used to do it back in the firehouse.”

“What’s that?” He said.

“Nothing,” she said. Her voice had lost something. “Just the place where I was before this.”

He did not push the point. He began piling blankets onto the bed.

“Now don’t you go making moves on me, young lady,” he said, with faux sternness.

“Groooossss,” she sang, and they both laughed.

He eased down onto the mattress. She pressed against him, his lap to her rear. After a few moments he pushed her away, turned over, and pulled her hand across his shoulder, so that her stomach was pressed against his back instead.

“Just not comfortable on that side,” he said. “My back and all.”

“Of course,” she said, and she kindly let the subject drop.

He awoke to screams, as usual.

Somebody was touching him. He threw himself out of bed, landed on the floor, felt around for his hatchet.

“What’s going on?” The girl asked.

He shook his head clear. He closed his eyes and sighed.

“Bad dream,” he said. “Did you hear someth-”

Another scream. Muffled by distance, refracted from the neighboring buildings, hard to place. He heard a rustle – the girl was moving.

“Don’t go anywhere,” he said, but she didn’t answer.

She kept moving.

He reached out, bumped his knuckles on a wall that he didn’t realize was there. He knocked his knee on the nightstand, standing up. He felt the picture frame topple over. He moved to catch it, but guessed wrong. He heard it hit the carpet, but the glass didn’t break.

There was a thump somewhere to his right, followed by whispered swearing. Then light footsteps, growing distant. The girl had found the doorway. She left the bedroom.

He followed after, hands in front, taking careful, shuffling steps like a blind man. He bent his finger backward when he hit the wall. He felt along its length, found the opening, then slipped out into the living room. The light was abysmal, just shadows and vague outlines, but he moved faster, having his bearings again. She was already outside, standing at the edge of the balcony, looking down into nothing. From out here, the noises were clearer: Pained grunts. Something metal being knocked over. Laughter, wildly out of place for how sincere and playful it was.

From absolute darkness into relative darkness, a figure: An older man, his face indistinct. A bulge around the belly. Toddling, uncertain steps. He held a hand to his face in a way that betrayed a wound. He screamed again, no words, no plea for help – just an animalistic squeal. He stumbled onto Washington Street, moving toward the memorial, and the marina.

“We have to help him,” the girl said.

He didn’t reply. He went to retrieve the rifle from its place in the corner. His fingers closed on nothing.

He grabbed again, lower, waved his hand slowly from side to side, hoping to contact its barrel in the dark. He knelt, with considerable difficulty, and padded around the cement.

“What are you doing?” She asked.

“I have a rifle here,” he said. “Somewhere.”

“I have it,” she said. “I saw it earlier. I’m a decent shot.”

“Hand it over,” he said.

He approached her in the dark, one hand out for receipt. He was watching the street below. No rifle was deposited.

He grunted.

“Are you going to help him?” She asked.

More figures emerging from the shadow canyons of the neighboring high-rise. They followed the wounded man.

A whiff of fabric moving across wood, and the girl had the rifle up against her shoulder, sighting it down on the figures below. She tracked the leader: Skinny and androgynous, its features hidden beneath the deep, loose hood of a baggy sweatshirt.

He heard her breathe in slowly. Could practically feel her finger tightening on the trigger.

He seized the rifle, pulling it up and away.

“What the hell?” She hissed.

“You shoot and they’ll know we’re here,” he said.

“So we’ll shoot them all,” she said.

“You don’t even know how many there are,” he said.

He held the rifle above and behind him, keeping a toy from a petulant child.

“We can take them,” she said. “We have to help that guy.”

“We don’t know him,” he said.

She recognized the finality in his voice. She went to speak, stopped.

“Fine,” she said, and she turned away.

From balcony to tile to carpet, her footsteps went from flat, to hollow, to gone.

He watched the street.

The hooded figure quickened its pace, broke into a short run, vaulted the metal hoops of a bike rack and did a clumsy twist. It fell, rolling onto its butt. It laughed: High and young.

One of the others followed suit, but vaulted the rack with more grace. This one a boy, tall and lanky. A shock of long hair on one side of his head, the other shaved bare. He landed square, both feet planted on either side of the hooded figure’s shoulders. Then he squatted low, rubbing his crotch on the prone figure’s face. They laughed, all of them, together. The hooded figure pushed the lanky boy away and had its feet again, up and running at full sprint. It disappeared after the wounded man, around the corner. The others followed, whistling and whooping.

From somewhere behind him, a familiar noise that he hadn’t heard in a long time: A sticky latch being flipped, and the plastic crackle of weather stripping, releasing its seal. The girl had opened the front door.

“Wait,” he cast his voice low and urgent out into the dark. “Don’t go out there!”

Through the bare living room, to the end of the hall. Nightblind, he sensed the change in the air from the open door. Staler than his own, warmer, and full of rot. Outside, in the long corridor between apartments, something crashed. The girl swore.

“Wait,” he called again, leaning out of the doorway. “I never cleared the halls. It’s not safe.”

“Then stay there,” she snapped.

He hesitated at the threshold for the space of ten heartbeats, then stepped out of his home, and into the dark.

The hallway smelled of singed dust. Remnants of the fire. The carpet was thin, and did nothing to hide her footsteps ahead. He followed them through a cooler space in the darkness. Sensed another change in the air. Felt an absence of pressure signifying a larger space. An open door: one of the apartments that he hadn’t checked yet. He could feel its stillness pressing in on him. He moved to the left wall and put his hand on it. Dragged his fingers across the rough, flaking paper as he walked. They grazed against the cool metal of a doorjamb. He felt for the knob. Found it. Still closed. He hadn’t heard it swish open, hadn’t heard the hydraulics wheeze as it shut, hadn’t heard the hollow thunk of the latch engaging. She’d walked right by it.

“Back here,” he called.

She didn’t answer.

He sighed, loud enough so she could hear the resignation in it.

“The door to the stairs is back here. I’m touching it,” he said.

A moment of quiet, then small feet, shuffling.

“You’re coming with me?” She asked.

“If I don’t, you’ll never even find the damn stairs,” he answered.

A skeptical laugh. Uncertain steps.

“The wall to my left, your right,” he said.

She found it, her fingers brushing against his when she reached the doorway.

“Let’s go back,” he said. “It’s probably already too late to do any good.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “We have to try.”

She didn’t wait for him to reply. The handle clicked, and stale air washed in. It smelled like concrete and metal. He felt the warmth of her body pass, in the dark. He followed it.

The stairs were easy. One at a time, hand on the rail, all the way to the bottom. They descended in silence, wary of alerting some unseen thing below that might be waiting for them. Finally he heard her stumble, reaching for a step that wasn’t there.

“I think we’re here,” she said.

“The lobby is this way,” he agreed. Palms against rough concrete. Cool steel. “Got it. Follow my voice.”

He eased the door open. The relative dark of the lobby at night, with its smashed windows and destroyed façade, was daylight compared to the absolute blackness of the stairwell. He could only make out shapes. Boxes and diamonds: the tacky, faux mid-century modern furniture of the lounge. Beyond it, ink and shadow. Distant sparks marking fires across the river.

“I’m all turned around,” she said.

“It’s this way.”

He took her by the hand, felt her delicate bones against his broad and calloused palm.

They picked their way through the shattered, burned, and weathered remains of the lobby, wincing whenever their feet found old wood, or broken glass. They crept around the husk of a burned-out garbage truck, half-embedded in the reception desk. The sticky, resinous smell of old, fried meat. He didn’t look inside. They stood on the cracked pavement of the circular driveway, and listened.

Distant yelps of pain and fear, answered by laughter.

He squeezed her hand. She squeezed back.

Out on the street, she took the lead, picking her way quiet and quick through the shrubbery, heading toward the Korean War memorial which bordered his building on the marina side. There was light over there, mostly blocked by the curving remembrance wall. It threw sinewy silhouettes halfway up Portside Towers. The voices grew louder. He and the girl grew quieter. Smaller movements, more carefully placed. The orange wash of the unseen fire guided them in. They ducked behind the memorial. On the far side of it, a man sobbed and pleaded. A smattering of young voices joked and prodded. A fire crackled. A bone snapped. A low, wet howl.

“Last chance,” she said, her voice so faint that he saw, more than heard the words. “You don’t have to do this.”

He clenched his jaw. Fit his teeth together. He nodded once, short, sure.

She smiled. Small and sad.

She stepped out into the light. The voices stopped.

He followed the girl, tensing for a fight.

“Ho, shit!” Somebody laughed. Disbelieving. Others joined in.

The hunters lounged in a rough semi-circle around a central campfire. Just kids. Not a one over twenty. A loping monkey of a boy, all knees and elbows. A pretty blonde in a puffy green parka. A shorter, dark-skinned girl with her combat boots kicked up, resting on the lap of a chubby Asian kid with a patchy pubescent beard. The bald man they’d seen running was now on his knees, clutching his face and quietly whimpering.

“Ohhhh noooo,” a high voice sang.

It cut through the rabble. A short, slim figure in a gray sweatshirt stepped forward, its hood pulled up, face lost to shadow.

“You lost!” It finished.

The laughter resumed.

He looked to the girl for context, but she was stepping away from him, circling around to stand behind the hunters.

He opened his mouth to speak. Considered. Then turned to run instead. He found three more children lurking behind him: One — the oldest so far, in his mid twenties, perhaps — was huge and muscular, wearing an old army jacket and cap, both three sizes too small. They were covered in sharpie graffiti: copulating stick figures and crudely scrawled profanities. Another, a girl, plain and acne-scarred. Brown hair pulled back into a tight ponytail that flowed all the way to her knees. She held a pair of industrial bolt cutters. The snips were stained with rust. Or something rust colored. The last kid was a perfectly hairless, golden-skinned little boy. Not even eyebrows marring his smooth face. Maybe ten years old. In each hand, he held a shiny silver chef’s knife. Black handles stenciled with Japanese writing. The metal was ornately folded; it caught the firelight and danced with it. He stepped away from them. He turned to face the main group.

“Why?” He asked.

Every one of the children burst out laughing. It went on so long they ran out of breath, red-faced and panting. When it finally started to ease down, the pretty blonde giggled and it caught on again. A full minute passed. They wiped tears from their eyes.

“Oh, Jesus,” the chubby Asian kid sighed.

“My stomach hurts,” the girl in the combat boots said, holding a hand over her abdomen. “That was the funniest god damn thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Why?” The hairless boy imitated, making his voice deep and dopey.

And they were off laughing again.

Something in the bald man broke, and he bolted from his place by the fire. He disappeared into the night like he’d jumped into the ocean.

“Oop,” the huge guy pointed. “Lost a rabbit.”

“Ah,” the hooded figure waved a dismissive hand. “He’ll play the game later. Let’s focus on this one for now – it’s hilarious.”

The leader crossed around the campfire, the light at their back stealing all detail from the space beneath the hood. Just a black hole for a face. They stood a few feet from him, hands on their hips, watching. He looked past them. Found the girl at the edge of the memorial, where stones met grass. Her shoulders pulled in, her head cast down, trying to make herself small.

“Why?” He asked her again.

“Boo,” the girl with the ponytail called. “Too soon.”

“Yeah, man,” the huge guy said. “Don’t wear it out.”

“Hold up,” the hooded figure said. “Let her answer.”

The girl didn’t speak. She looked away.

The leader closed the distance to her in a few quick bounds. They seized the girl’s face. Held her eyelids open – Marie’s eyes; murky blue – and spat directly into her eyeball. The girl cried out.

He tried to run to her, but massive, meaty hands closed around his arms and pulled him backwards. Down. Thumped on his ass. His back. He gasped from the pain.

“You gotta answer him,” the figure explained to the girl. “Come on, it’ll be funny.”

They waited.

“I had to do it,” the girl said, still unable to look at him. “If I don’t play the game, I become the game.”

“Ooh, well said,” the acne-scarred girl chuckled. “I like that.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty good,” the leader agreed. They turned to address him. “So do you get it now?”

“Get what?” He asked. “Listen, if your problem’s with me, you can let the girl go-”

A sharp bark of laughter from behind.

The hooded figure knelt down, face to face with him. He stared into the cavern beneath the drawn hood.

“That’s just it, though,” they said. “That little rabbit over there just killed you…”

The figure paused to look at the girl, still rubbing her eyeball. When they turned, he caught a glimpse of their features. High, thin nose. Sharp cheekbones and full lips. They were beautiful, whatever they were.

“She brought you out here to die, and you know it, and yet you’re still all ‘let the girl go.’ It’s funny. Get it?”

“No,” he said. Looking to each of the kids for clarification. “You knew I was up there? You could have come in and killed me whenever you wanted…”

“What’s funny about that?” The chubby one asked.

“Right,” the leader agreed. “You had to come out to us. That’s the game. And you were doing so good! We ran, what, twenty rabbits past your house..”

“Sixteen,” the pretty blonde corrected.

“Sixteen bunnies!” The hooded figure exclaimed. “Nobody made it to sixteen! That chickenshit yuppie in the bank broke at eight. Hell, those badass biker guys only made it to ten. When we brought out a cute little white bunny – like, we’re talking barely old enough to hop, here — and started cutting on her right in front of the warehouse they were holed up in, they broke. Came charging out all chains swinging and-”

“Get your hands off her!” The hairless boy did his baritone impression again, and the other kids laughed.

“We tried that with you last month,” the hooded figure continued. “And nothin’! Same exact bunny. Little thing screamed all night, but you didn’t budge. We cut her until she was just a stain, man. You were stone cold! You were the champ!”

He winced. He looked at the girl, to make sure she still wasn’t looking at him.

“I gotta know,” the leader asked. “What was it about this particular rabbit that finally got to you?”

He didn’t answer. The figure stood and started over toward the girl again.

“Her eyes!” He called after them. They stopped, swiveled about. Waited for him to continue. “She…she looks like my wife. A little bit. Around the eyes.”

Quiet. Small waves lapping at the shore. The crackle of the fire.

“Pfffffthahahahaha,” the leader doubled over.

The other hunters broke simultaneously, howling, rolling on the ground, weeping and thumping on their thighs. When their laughter finally faded, the hooded figure sat down before him, inches away.

“That’s perfect,” they said. “You have to get it now, right? You get the joke?”

“No,” he whispered.

“Am I explaining it wrong?” The leader asked the group. “I don’t know what else to say.”

“Some people just got no sense of humor,” the huge guy said, his voice weary.

“Sad,” the girl in the combat boots added.

“Listen,” he said, looking to each of the kids in turn. “There has to be something you want. I’ve got food, water. We can make a deal.”

“You can’t,” the girl finally spoke. One hand still over her eye, she looked at him from across the fire. “I told you, they’re not human. They’re just like the other things.”

“Not just like them,” the leader amended. “It’s true, when I’m not around, my little ones can be a little chaotic. They each play their own game, by their own rules — and if you’re not paying attention, maybe you could mistake that for madness. But when I’m here, they all play the same game. The best game: Mine.”

The figure pulled back its hood. Short, shiny red hair in an artfully chaotic mess. Smooth, pale skin. Flowing, flawless features, each contour on its face leading gracefully into the next. Except for the area around the eyes. The entire ocular cavity — from the bone beneath the eyebrow, all the way back around to the bridge of the nose — there was only blackness. Not a shadow; not a trick of the light: The void persisted, even when the leader turned and caught the light of the fire. He stared into the blank spaces where their eyes should be. They were not empty; they did not look in onto the skull. They opened onto some other place. The black within them was absolute, and yet still, he got the sense of watching something incomprehensibly vast moving in the far distance. He looked from the black eyes to the black spot in the sky, and back.

“Hey, now you’re getting it!” The leader said.

“I’m booooored,” the pretty blonde whined.

“All right,” the leader shrugged. “Let’s get started.”

“Hold on!” The hairless boy said. “I wanna try something. I’ve always wondered if you could still see out of your eye once it’s pulled out of your head.”

“What?” The huge guy laughed. “That’s stupid.”

“No,” the boy argued. “I mean, without cutting the nerves and stuff. If you pull it out just a little, can you make them look at their own gouged-out eye?”

“Whoa,” the chubby Asian said.

“Okay,” the leader chuckled. “Leave the eyes for now.”

“And the mouth!” The boy interjected.

“Well, that’s just getting greedy,” the dark-skinned girl said, standing and stretching.

“He has to be able to tell me if he can see himself,” the boy whined.

“Tell you what,” the leader said. “We’ll start at the toes and race you to the top. Better be quick!”

“You’re on!” The hairless boy laughed, sliding his knives against one another.

The girl shuddered. Her palm still covered her one wounded eye, but the other met his for a moment.

“This doesn’t make you bad,” he called to her. “It just makes you smart.”

“Ugh,” the boy rolled his eyes. “Maybe you can have the mouth, after all. He can just nod.”

The kids laughed, and set to play.

 

 

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