Short Fiction by Dennis Lowery

Tap – Tap – Tap – Tap – Tap

I kept moving and thinking of other things helped me take my mind off how fast the sun was setting.

Grandpa had said the tension, the push and pull friction between the Rights and Lefts had split the heart of America. And about the time when that was at its worst, he said ‘we’ were at our weakest—the elections, whatever that is, of 2020—is when it happened. I mean, we don’t even know what ‘it’ was, what or who caused it. Whatever started it, it swept the country. Some people—when they got sick—turned and became feeders on those around them, but most died. A few like mom, dad and grandpa lived through it and didn’t change. Then after, mom and dad had me and I was fine, so they hoped for some kind of future if others had children. And for a while, there’d been others in our city. Not many but mom and dad would see them as they scavenged while grandpa watched me. Then there were fewer. And then none.

Tap –– Tap –– Tap –– Tap –– Tap

My grandpa, before he died had cussed about it, “It all went to hell in a handbasket.” I didn’t know what he meant by handbasket… maybe it was like that canvas bag mom used to gather stuff in when she had foraged. Grandpa never answered questions anymore—he got that way the past year or so—and I didn’t ask him. Mom said his mind wandered, but sometimes his eyes would lose that muddy puddle look, and there’d be a glint, like off metal under the surface. Kind of like what I kept in my pocket to play with, using its shiny side to splash sunlight on the ground. Grandpa called it a campaign pin… and mom remembered seeing them when she was younger. It was just something I found with mom and him one day, I’d kicked a rock that had tumbled across the road and landed in a scooped-out hole that still held water from that morning’s rain. I looked in and there it was in a couple inches of water. When I took it out, and the sun was on it right, I could see the faded colors and the outline of a man’s head, soft chin with a pouch hanging under and a swoop of hair that didn’t seem to fit the head. Beneath were letters—mom had taught me them—smudged away and some I could barely read:  E    A D E   A M   R I C     R E A T    A G A ….

I had said something about it and grandpa told me the man was probably a politician. Those were folks supposed to be the leaders of a country, he explained like we’d once been. When I wiped it on my shirt, he’d held his knobby hand out to take a look. You’d think it was hot, he held it for just a second—I think he recognized the man—and then threw it away. Good thing I saw it land. Grandpa cussed and I heard some naughty—mom says they are, and I shouldn’t say them—words. He had his eyes closed and fists clenched… he said the last “sunavabitch” under his breath then went inside shaking his head. I hopped fast to get it, the little saucer of metal. I can get around on one leg quicker than mom could with two. Not so much now though, not getting around so good… but I’m still moving.

Tap ––– Tap ––– Tap ––– Tap ––– Tap

That made me think of how mom kept me from that place—she said it had been a cabinet shop—at the corner of Caligari Street and the old graveyard road. That’s where I had been grabbed up when I was four. It’s been ten years, but I don’t miss my left leg. Mom wouldn’t talk about it… back when it happened and even now, but I know what they—the thing inside the shop—did with it. They eat and then sleep until they get hungry. My dad, that day when he got me out of there and home for mom to stay and tend to me, turned back to go after it. He waited for that one, the next time it came out. But didn’t expect the others that came with it—mom said they had only seen the one and thought him a loner as so many of them were—and they poured out and tore him to shreds. That’s how I lost my dad.

Now mom’s sick and I have to take care of her; took care of grandpa too but he died. So I foraged alone and had to go further to find food. A couple of months ago I saw a big building mom said must be ‘The Costco,’ and there’s all kinds of stuff there. It’s a good ways from home and to get there I have to pass that shop on Caligari Street. But that’s okay, they don’t come out in the sun anymore. Mom says they’re still changing. At night they sure get around. In my nightmares, they’re out there hunting—hungry—for the rest of me. During the day they’re always in the dark places, inside. And there’s one at  Caligari Street — the watcher in the window — every time as I go by. Like it had been that afternoon.

Tap –––– Tap –––– Tap –––– Tap –––– Tap

I had got there with plenty of time, I thought. I can climb pretty good with one leg… mostly. That metal thing — mom called them racks, big shelves, the one time she had come with me — was way up, three times my height. But that’s where the last of the cans of fruit was, and mom really really likes peaches. I was up there cutting a box of them open and tossing the cans to the floor. Some got dented and would roll, but I’d gather them when I got down once I had enough to fill my bag. Then my foot had slipped. At least I let go of the knife. Grandpa had fallen once with one in his hand and stabbed himself in the leg, I’d seen it. And when he fell, he had cussed and swore. When I’d asked him if he would be okay, he told me, “Yes, but it hurts like sin.” Well. I didn’t know what he meant, and that’s what I was thinking—drop the knife—when I hit the concrete. I landed on my foot, but it turned under me. Then I was pretty sure the pain in my ankle was that sin grandpa felt. I had cried then, but not much. Not like when my mom had cried when dad died, her breath rattling and shoulders shaking until she saw me in the door of her room in grandpa’s house. She got in a last shudder then looked at me. “No more time for crying, Sarah. Right?” she had nodded to herself and got up. I never saw her cry again.

I had laid there just for a second holding my ankle then crawled to my crutch I’d left against the metal post and with it under an arm, pushed up and put weight on my foot. I cried more and wobbled. But I thought of mom and grandpa… and my dad, though he was gone. They had been strong. I was too. So, I nodded, “Right. No more time for crying, mom.” I told myself, steadied and then had bent to get four of the large cans in my bag, the one mom used to carry and then moved toward the front to get out.

Tap ––––– Tap ––––– Tap ––––– Tap ––––– Tap––––––

It was a long way home. The rubber piece covering the tip of my crutch had dried, cracked, broken and dropped off and the metal tap… tap… tapped on the concrete. The increasing intervals marked my slowing pace. I didn’t cry anymore, but I chewed my lip bloody by the time I got near Caligari Street. Behind me the sky was orange-red, the sun touched then sank below the tops of buildings behind and surrounding me and cast long shadows over the street.

I was across from the shop and saw it in the window, watching me. It quivered when it spotted me and shifted its look to gage the lengthening darkness that had thickened and touched its window. As I inched along — crying again, I’m sorry mom — the shadow climbed to cover the glass. Then behind the bent-down blinds, I saw it—the creature—had disappeared.

I had just passed that window when it came out of the door at the side of the building. It darted toward me, its white near-nose-less face and jagged teeth gnashing, visible even in the dusk. And I was so slow… too slow. I dropped my bag and pulled out the knife grandpa had given me. It—the thing—was on me before I could think, mom had always been there if one came at us. I stabbed at its head, aimed for through an eye like my mom had taught me. But I missed and got bone, tearing a rip across its forehead. They don’t bleed, not anymore grandpa had told me, and wounds hardly slow them. My knife wasn’t big enough to chop a leg or two off, that’d serve him right. Then I skidded, catching myself from falling with a hand, but lost my knife. I stagger-hopped to one side, the creature missing me, which put me in the middle of the street with its one band of sunlight remaining. It — what had once been a man — slewed around and waited for me as that strip of light shrank. I took a deep breath, got my weight centered on my leg and brought the crutch up. Cock it like a baseball bat, grandpa had said. I had only read about baseball, but I was going to swing as hard as I could and maybe crack its skull. Put it down so I could get atop it and finish the job because I’d never get away otherwise.

The darkness had gnawed the sunlight down to a ribbon, a sliver around me. Then the sun vanished. The thing lunged. I braced and swung my metal crutch, catching it on the head but caroming off as it reared, gaping mouth to stab its teeth at my throat. Behind me I heard a sharp crack and then its head exploded over me. Wiping brains and bits of bone from my face, I turned around. In the gloom a man, a very big man — wearing clothes and carrying a gun, he must still have bullets — like I’d never seen, walked down the middle of the street toward me.

As he got close, he reached up to something attached to his chest, “Found a survivor… there might be others, recommend full patrol to sweep the city.” he said into it. With a squelch from the little box, he let it drop back to rest high on his chest next to his left shoulder. He reached down to another box on his hip and pressed a button. It glowed and cast light over me. “It’s okay… you’re safe,” the man said.

I got my crutch under my arm and backed away from him. But grandpa thought someone surely had survived and would one day come to help. Mom—after dad died—had doubted; it’d been years, and she had nothing to believe left in her. I looked up at him, this man—the first human other than family I’d seen in years—who was so much bigger than dad and grandpa, “Who are you?” I asked. As he leaned forward, I saw a red and white patch on his arm near his shoulder. In the middle of it was a red leaf, just like the ones mom said she and dad loved so much in autumn before they had come far south to grandpa’s hoping it was safer than up north.

“I’m…” he paused, the thing on his chest squawked something, and he pressed it to squawk back, “copy that,” he told it and looked back up, “we’re Canadian. I’m sorry we took so long to work our way down here to help you.”

NOTE FROM DENNIS

Pictures tell stories—or form the seed of one—and I collect them from the public domain or that have a Creative Commons license so I can use them. Months ago, I came across one that showed an abandoned building, close up of a window with the old metal horizontal blinds bent down like when you don’t want to raise them but peek out. So, I thought… who’s inside, what’s in there and maybe that’ll become a story. One morning it came to me. So, I found another suitable image—of a ghoulish face—and took the ‘behind the glass’ black of the one, made it a transparent section and then moved the face into it. The figure became the watcher in the window. Over the next morning’s coffee, I wrote the first two drafts. I polished it more and you just read the result. Please bear with any remaining small errors or gaffes, I’ll refine this further.

I hope you enjoyed the story.

Side Note: Caligari Street comes from a 1920s movie titled The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, arguably ‘the first true horror film.’ And there is other symbolism from that movie–that I hint at in the story–which depicts authority manipulating people to serve their agenda and that weakens the fabric of a country’s character (society).

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