“We stopped checking for monsters under our bed when we realized they were inside us.”–Charles Darwin
I kept moving, and thinking of other things helped me take my mind off how fast the sun was setting. Grandpa had said the push and pull friction between the Rights and Lefts split America’s heart. And about the time when that was at its worst, he said ‘we’ were at our weakest—the elections— when it happened. I mean, we don’t even know what ‘it’ was, what or the cause. But once started, it swept the country.
When they got sick, some people turned and became feeders on those around them, but most died. A few, like mom, dad, and grandpa, didn’t change. Afterward, mom and dad had me, and I was fine, so they hoped for a future if others had children too. And for a while, there’d been others in our city. Not many, but mom and dad would spot them as they scavenged while grandpa watched me. Then there were fewer… and finally none.
My grandpa, before he died, had cussed: “All went to hell in a handbasket.” I didn’t know what he meant by handbasket… maybe something like the canvas bag mom used to gather stuff in when she had foraged. Grandpa never answered questions anymore—he got that way the past year—and I didn’t ask him. Mom said his mind wandered, but sometimes his eyes would lose their muddy puddle look, and there’d be a glint, like 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. 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 it was in a couple inches of water. When I took the metal disc out, and the sun was just right, I could make out 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: M K E A M R I C G R E A A G A ….
I had said something about it, and grandpa told me the man was probably a politician. He explained that those were supposed to be the leaders of a country like we’d once been. When I wiped the disc on my shirt, he’d held his knobby hand out to see. You’d think it was hot; he held it for just a second—I think he recognized the man—and threw it away. Grandpa cussed. Some naughty—mom says they are, and I shouldn’t use them—words. He had his eyes closed and fists clenched… he said the last, “sunavabitch,” under his breath and went inside shaking his head. I hopped fast to get 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.
That made me think of how mom kept me from that place—she said had been a cabinet shop—at the corner of Caligari Street and the old graveyard road. Where I had been grabbed up when I was four. It’s been ten years, but I didn’t miss my left leg. Mom wouldn’t talk about that, but I know what they—the thing inside the shop—did with my leg. They eat and sleep until they’re hungry. My dad, the day when he got me out, 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—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. And 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 hunted alone and had to go further to find food. A couple of months ago, I spotted a giant building mom said must be ‘The Costco’ that sold all kinds of stuff. It’s a ways from home, and 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 move around. In my nightmares, they’re out hunting—hungry—for the rest of me. During the day, they’re always in dark places… mostly inside. Like the one at Caligari Street—the watcher in the window—watching me every time I go by. Like that afternoon.
I had got to the Costco with plenty of time, I thought. I can climb pretty good with one leg… mostly. That metal thing—mom called them racks 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 liked peaches. I was up, 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. And my foot 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 said, “Yes, but hurts like sin.” Well. I didn’t know what he meant. But that’s what I thought—drop the knife—before hitting the concrete. I landed on my foot, but it turned under me. I was pretty sure the pain in my ankle was that sin grandpa felt. I cried, but not much. Not like when my mom 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 and 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 lay on the floor 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 bent to put four of the large cans in my bag, the one mom used to carry and moved toward the front. Time to go.
It was a long way home. The rubber piece covering the tip of my crutch had dried, cracked, and dropped off, and the metal now 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 and then sank below the tops of buildings behind and surrounding me, casting long shadows over the street.
I was across from the shop and saw the watcher in the window. It quivered when it spotted me and shifted its eyes to gauge the lengthening darkness that had thickened and touched the window. As I inched along—crying again, I’m sorry, mom—the shadow climbed to cover the glass. Behind the bent-down blinds, the creature had disappeared.
I had just passed the window when it came out of the door at the side of the building. Rushing at me, messed-up-hate-filled face and jagged teeth gnashing in the dusk. And I was so slow… too slow. I dropped my bag and pulled out the knife grandpa had given me. The thing was on me before I could think. After dad died, mom had always been ready if one came at us. I’d never faced one alone. I stabbed at the 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 still bleed some… grandpa had told me, but wounds hardly slow them.
My knife wasn’t big enough to chop a leg or two off; that’d serve him right. I skidded, catching myself from falling with a hand, but lost the knife. I stagger-hopped to one side, the creature missing me, which put me in the middle of the street with a single band of sunlight remaining. It—what had once been a man—slewed around and waited for me as the strip of light shrank. I took a deep breath, got my weight balanced on my leg, and brought the crutch up. Cocked like a baseball bat, like grandpa told me. I had only read about baseball, but I was going to swing as hard as I could and maybe crack its skull. Put the thing down… jump atop 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 with a gaping mouth to stab teeth at my throat. Behind me came a sharp crack, and the thing’s head exploded. 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… 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—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 was a red leaf, like the ones mom said she and dad loved so much in autumn before they had come far south to grandpa’s, hoping to find a safer place 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.”
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NOTE FROM DENNIS
Pictures tell stories—or are the seed of one—and I collect interesting ones from the public domain with a Creative Commons license, or I buy or license them for future use. I came across a photograph of an abandoned store. A close-up of its front door and windows with the old metal horizontal blinds bent down like when you don’t want to raise them to peek out. I thought… who’s inside looking out and added it to my collection. It came to me on the morning of October 6 while considering other Halloween story ideas. Over that morning’s coffee, I wrote the first two drafts. I polished it more into what you just read.
Side note: In the story, 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, which depicts a brutal authority manipulating people to serve their agenda and weaken the fabric of character (society), that I hint at in this story.