W T Rose

Cry Havoc


AUTHOR’S NOTE:

<p>AUTHOR’S NOTE:</p>

The book you hold in your hands began as a deceptively simple sounding experiment: could I write the complete first draft of a novel within a 24 hour period? At first I was dubious. The day before I’d completed the initial draft of The Dead & Dying, to which I had devoted over a year of my life. And while it was true that I was trying to decide what project to tackle next, writing an entire novel within the span of a single day — even a short one — was more than a bit daunting. It wasn’t so much what I should write about as I had plenty of ideas: should my next book be the cyberpunk-noir collection of stories all connected by a central theme? Or perhaps that sci-fi tale about the female assassin hiding within the walls of a futuristic brothel? No, ideas weren’t what initially caused me to balk. Rather, it was the immensity of the undertaking. I knew the manuscript would have to be around 40,000 words in length not to be considered a novella and National Novel Writing Month challenges authors to complete a 50,000 word first draft in a month’s period. Could I really do the majority of a NaNoWriMo in a day’s time?

But the more I thought about it, the more excited I became by the idea. I decided if I was really going to do this completely insane thing then I was going to do it right: chapters would be uploaded to williamtoddrose.com as they were completed; periodic updates posted on Facebook and some of the message boards I frequent; and I would start right away, despite the fact that it was eleven o’clock at night and I’d already been awake for fourteen hours or so.

Ironically, in the end, I didn’t go with any of the ideas I’d been kicking around. All I knew was that I wanted to start the book with a scene of a city in chaos, completely embroiled in urban warfare. I trusted that the characters and plot would reveal itself to me as the words appeared across my screen and set to work.

It was literally an exhausting experience in every sense of the word: physically, mentally, and emotionally. There were times when I felt like I just couldn’t go on, that I needed at least a short nap. But I laid there in bed for twenty minutes, tossing and turning as my mind continued thinking about the characters I’d created until I finally gave in and went right back to work without even a second of shuteye. However, around 6:00 PM or so I had reached my limit: I simply couldn’t go any further. My writing was deteriorating to the point that I had to second guess exactly what I meant two or three sentences back and I’d begun having these little blackouts at my keyboard. As well as making stupid mistakes (such as not saving my progress periodically and having to recreate almost an entire chapter when my word processor crashed). So I called it a night. Or a day. Or whatever.

I’d originally planned on finishing the last five hours the next day. However, I was still so drained by the experience that I simply couldn’t. I went to work and the day passed in a blur. I came home and watched some brain dead television shows with my wife, nothing that would be too taxing. I tried to hold conversations with her, but it was like my mind was moving in slow motion and the words all came out wrong. So I took the evening off from writing and instead jumped right back into it the day after.

Once all was said and done, I ended up going 20 minutes or so over my self-imposed 24 hour time limit. Furthermore, my first draft was a couple thousand words short of the 40,000 goal. But still… I had a workable manuscript, a book written in the span of a day. Even if it wasn’t consecutive, I’d still only missed it barely. If I hadn’t have wasted that time trying to take a cat nap, in fact, I probably would have made it. Next time, I would have to start earlier in the day as well; begin at six AM so I would be fresh and raring to go and… wait, was I really thinking about doing this again?

You bet your sweet ass. The 24 Hour Novel Extreme Writing Challenge (as I’ve come to think of it) was like a roller coaster ride so thrilling, so invigorating, that I knew I would have to jump right back in line as soon as the car came to a stop. And next time, I’ll nail it.


PART ONE

Form Without Function

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

<p>PART ONE</p> <p>Form Without Function</p>
<p>CHAPTER ONE</p>

I can see the mob through the window of our fifth story apartment. They scurry across the street like ants that have had their hill trampled beneath the boot of God. Roiling, black smoke rolls from fiery hulks that used to be cars and slinks over the sidewalk like a creeping death, obscuring those who disappear into its veil. I see windows shatter, showers of glass that sparkle like glitter from this distance, people swarming into the buildings and emerging minutes later with clothes piled in their arms, televisions hoisted onto shoulders, and even one guy dragging a mannequin behind him as if it were a prisoner of war. A woman runs up behind a teenager carrying a cardboard box filled with what appears to be looted items; as I watch she extends her arm out straight, leveling the dark object in her hand at the back of his head. There’s a puff of smoke and a little lick of fire and the teenager crumples to the ground as if he were a marionette whose strings had just been cut. The woman dives to the street and begins scooping the toppled items back into the box with both arms, raking in her booty like a greedy pirate. She’s almost filled the box back up when two men pounce upon her, knocking her face first into the concrete. As I watch, one of them buries his knees just below her shoulder blades while the other rips her yellow dress away as easily as if it were made of paper. Yanking her panties down, he quickly drops his trousers and forces his way into her while his partner grabs fistfuls of dark hair and bashes her face again and again into the pavement.

As far as the eye can see, scenes like this play out over and over: murder, rape, destruction, flames burning out of control while people scamper amid the blood and tears….

A helicopter races over the top of our building, flying so low and fast that the thumping of its rotors causes the window to rattle within its pane. Like an armored dragonfly, it darts toward the chaos below. It’s nose dipped low, blades whirring so quickly they simply look like a circular blur, it unleashes a staccato volley of gunfire: bits of concrete erupt like miniature volcanoes as the bullets rip across the streets; those caught in the line of fire jerk and twitch as if dancing to music only they can hear; once their riddled bodies are no longer held aloft by the spray of lead, they collapse in a heap and the bullets search for more partners to pull into its deadly boogie.

Movement on the roof of the Turner Building catches my eye. All at once, I see close to a dozen heads pop up over the side of the ledge. Nearly in unison they raise rifles to their shoulders and sunlight glares on their scopes. They fire repeatedly and the assault has the feel of a coordinated ambush; as if they somehow knew the helicopter would come along eventually. These must be the extremist militia type I’ve heard so much about on the news. Once FEMA declared martial law, they flooded the streets like fleas from a drowning dog, positive that the New World Order had finally decided to snap the neck on the eagle of freedom.

Their bullets ping off the helicopter and it begins to maneuver toward them but suddenly a plume of smoke belches from the tail fin. The machine spirals out of control, spinning in wild circles as it drops from the sky and I see the people on the roof throw up their hands as they jump up and down in victory.

The helicopter smashes into the side of People’s Bank and a giant fireball mushrooms into the sky as the mirrored glass of the building and flaming shards of metal rain down onto the rioters below. Even from this distance I can feel the force of the explosion in my chest, almost like I am being pushed backward by an infinitely strong ghost.

At street level, the trucks have begun rolling in now: drab green with camouflaged tarps pulled tightly over rib-like skeletons. They screech to a halt and soldiers hop out of the back. These trained killers move with fluid grace and precision, their automatic weapons shouldered even before their feet have even touched the ground.

“Richard, darling, why don’t you step away from the window?”

Jane speaks in a sing-song tone that sounds light and carefree. From listening to her, you’d never guess there was a full-fledged battle being waged only blocks away.

I let the drapes fall closed and turn around with images of the chaos still burning in my brain. For a moment, I feel dizzy as two entirely separate worlds collide. Outside, the streets have been darkened with blood and soot. People’s lives are being ripped to shreds and entire buildings burn unchecked in the afternoon sun. But in here, the gunshots seem as if they are coming from the end of some long corridor. They’re muffled and distant, no different really from a neighbor watching an action film with the volume turned up just a little too loudly.

The walls are light beige and are adorned with framed prints of the great masters: Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Dali. My favorite, Munch’s masterpiece The Scream, hangs just above an oak bookcase lined with the works of Shakespeare, Frost, and Melville among others. Everything about the room, from the potted ferns to the beaded curtain that separates the living room from the kitchen, has an almost deliberate look to it: as if it had somehow transcended the glossy pages of a catalog and manifested in the real world.

Jane is sitting on a little brown settee in front of a coffee tabled shaped like the Chinese yin-yang symbol. Her curly red hair is pulled back into a loose ponytail and tied with a yellow ribbon; she’s wearing the shirt I bought her for her birthday last year, the white one with the flowing sleeves that makes her look like some romantic poetess. She smooths her crinkled skirt with one hand and then leans forward to take a sip from a pink mug of herbal tea.

Perched on the couch across from her is her best friend, Polly Wainwright. As usual, Polly is wearing a t-shirt with some sort of slogan on it; this particular one is a simple white tee with pink letters reading Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History. Like all of her clothes it is loose and comfortable, the folds of the fabric seeming to flow as easily as the golden locks of her hair.

“So,” Polly asks as she glances at me with those round, green eyes of hers, “what’s it like out there?”

I’m silent for a moment as I listen to the hiss and gurgle of the cappuccino maker in the kitchen. The strong scent of espresso mingles with sandalwood incense. The stereo in the corner plays so softly that I can’t tell whether it’s a Native American or Japanese flute. But I guess it’s probably Indian: Jane has been heavily into R. Carlos Nakai ever since she ordered from that catalog company and has bought practically every disc the man has ever released.

“Richard,” Jane says, “don’t be rude… Polly asked you a question.”

Should I tell them? Should I describe how I saw a woman raped on the sidewalk, a woman who only seconds earlier had committed cold-blooded murder? Should I tell them how the bodies are beginning to pile upon one another, how our once-peaceful neighbor is beginning to resemble the streets of some war-torn third world country?

I answer, however, without any real thought:

“It’s absolutely modern out there.”

I have no clue what this means. The words just kind of burble out of my mouth before I even really know I’m speaking; as soon as I hear them I feel self-conscious and silly, like an ill-prepared student forced to recite in front of the entire class. I feel my cheeks grow warm and lower my eyes to a throw-rug with the design of a Tibetan mandala. If either woman notices my discomfort, however, they give no indication.

“I know, right?” Jane replies. “It’s sad, the state of things these days. It’s like the whole city has lost its collective mind.”

“The whole city? Try the whole country, dearie. Haven’t you been listening to NPR?”

“Why bother? It’s not like they actually tell you anything.”

Jane’s right. We keep hearing reports of new outbreaks, of violence flaring up as quickly as the flashbulbs that freeze these horrors into snapshots of frozen time for the papers. Riots. Looting. Civil unrest on a scale our country has never known. And yet nobody can tell us why. One expert blames the effects of video games and the media, another on cosmic radiation from last month’s solar activity, while the televangelists claim that we are living through the beginning of the end. But it’s really nothing more than rampant speculation masquerading as news.

The beaded curtains rattle as Cody Preston shoulders his way through the doorway; he’s carrying a tray with four cups of cappuccino carefully balanced on it as if he were a priest bringing sacrament to the masses.

“I say, is anyone thirsty?”

My body immediately stiffens and a sour feeling blossoms in my stomach.

Cody is a tall and lanky man, given to wearing jaunty fedoras and wool scarves over careful layers of pastel. His round spectacles are almost always too far down his nose to serve any real purpose and his goatee looks as if hours have been spent ensuring that it is perfectly symmetrical.

When he speaks, he affects this slightly British accent that causes me to inwardly cringe as if his words were the mental equivalent of fingers on a chalkboard. I know damn well that he’s from some hick town in Kentucky that even cartographers haven’t heard of… but for some reason he insists on speaking as if he’s only a generation or so removed from royalty.

I detest this man, more than anyone else I’ve ever met. Everything about him makes me want to hold a pillow over his face just so I won’t have to suffer another second of his presence. But he’s Polly’s current boyfriend and since Jane and I are something of an item, I — by default — am considered a close, personal friend.

I smile and take the steaming coffee he offers but inside I would like nothing more than to throw it in his smug little face.

My therapist thinks I’m jealous of Cody, which I find to be absolutely absurd. She says, however, that it’s not so much him I’m envious of as what he represents. You see, Ms Cline has this notion that I secretly wish I were with Polly instead of Jane. She claims it would be just as obvious to me if I could manage to put some objective distance between myself and the situation. I, however, think that she’s just grasping at straws and trying to milk as many hours out of me as she possibly can.

I will admit, though, that sometimes Polly does take my breath away. When she laughs, she throws back her head and her neck looks as graceful and soft as the most delicate swan. Her eyes sparkle like diamonds and I imagine her lips to be velvety, like two rose petals passed gently over the skin. And, as long as I am being entirely honest with myself, there have been a few occasions when I’ve had a little too much Merlot and imagined the curves of her breasts pressed against my chest as I made love to Jane. But she is a strong, intelligent, beautiful young woman and I naturally respond to that. As any man would. But it’s nothing more than a fleeting fantasy. Not something I would ever actually act upon. She and I are friends, nothing more and nothing less.

I realize that someone has said something to me and snap my attention back to the here and now with an arch of my eyebrows.

“What was that?”

Jane sighs as if I’d just asked her to perform Cassius’ monologue from Julius Caesar entirely from memory.

“I said, darling, when do you think all of this will settle down?”

I take a sip of my coffee and close my eyes as I relish the bitter flavor of the beans.

“Soon, I hope.” I finally say. “Has to be.”

The other three begin debating cause and effect, each one rehashing sound bites they picked up from one news program or another, always so very careful to disagree without offense. The conversation is peppered with phrases such as What I think you’re failing to take into account is and I can see why you’d feel that way however….

They are so civilized, these friends of mine. So cultured and refined. Especially when you consider that they’re only a little over thirty years or so into life. But they wrap this cultivation around them like personal armor and it almost seems as if nothing real could ever hope to penetrate its barrier.

They sip their coffee.

They deliberate.

Point and counterpoint.

I doubt they even really hear the shots outside: the rapid fire crack of machine guns as the National Guard continues to quell the uprising.

They can’t begin to imagine the blood oozing across the sidewalks and dripping into the gutters as people moan and cry and beg for mercy; people who weren’t willing to give anyone else that same consideration just moments earlier.

Polly and Jane laugh at one of Cody’s stupid little puns and nod at one another knowingly.

It’s absolutely modern out there.

But it’s not. Not really.

It’s more of a savage landscape filled with the most primeval instincts and base desires. It’s evolution in action as the weak are cut from the genetic pool and the strong survive. It’s the worst parts of humanity thrown into sharp focus and illuminated with a spotlight, made to sing and dance to an accompaniment of tears. And I can’t help but wonder where we fit into all this: now that the anarchy is practically beating down our door, how will we fare in this violent, new world?

Will we stay safe and secure behind our locked door and gated apartment complex?

Or will we end up broken and battered like so many others?

Only time will tell, I suppose.

Only time will tell.

<p>CHAPTER TWO</p>

The clock in the kitchen says 3:15… which means it’s actually only a quarter till. Jane always sets the clocks thirty minutes ahead; the theory being that by doing so she’ll never be late for her book club or a meet-up down at Sacred Grounds. In practice, however, we’re both acutely aware that we actually have half an hour longer than what the clocks report and are consistently scrambling to get out the door on time. Or, at least, we were. These days we don’t leave the apartment much. Technically, as long as it’s daylight we’re allowed to move about the city freely. You may be occasionally stopped by a cop or soldier and required to explain your business while they scrutinize your identification. Sometimes this can happen as many as four times in the course of an hour; but we don’t have to go to work anymore, not unless you’re considered an essential employee for a company that provides a necessary service . Government subsidizing ensures that rent, bills, and mortgages are taken care of and all of our other needs are accounted for as well. In short, they make it as easy as possible to ensure that large groups of people won’t congregate in a single area without there being some sort of military presence at the ready. Which is fine by me. Since the trouble began, I always feel so damn exposed whenever I’m outside the safety of our four walls; I watch everyone who passes by like I would a snake that may or may not be venomous. I wonder if they are really sizing me up, if they’re taking into account my jacket or shoes, wondering if it would be worth the trouble…. Or perhaps they simply feel the same nervous fluttering in their stomachs that I do. Maybe they’re taking their own personal inventory and trying to decide if it would be better to fight or run if I should suddenly turn on them.

I hold my head in my hands and try to will sleep to come.

I listen to the clock tick and the soft humming of the refrigerator.

At least Polly and Cody aren’t at each other anymore. For the past forty minutes or so I could hear them through the thin walls of the guest bedroom: the creaking of bedsprings, the headboard tapping gently against the plaster like erotic Morse code, muffled moans and proclamations of undying love. At first my mind was filled with images of Cody humping away at her like a Chihuahua pumped up on Viagra. The thought of his pimply ass cheeks grinding against one another while his face contorted into some ridiculous sex mask was enough to literally make me ill. I felt like everything I had eaten throughout the day had soured in my stomach, as if rather than breaking down the food it had turned into an incubator for bacteria and disease. Bile stung the back of my throat and I tried to shift my focus, to pretend that it was simply Polly in the other room and the sounds I were hearing were nothing more than her exploring the secrets of her own body. I pictured her sprawled across the bed, alone in the dark, her hair fanned out across the pillow as a sheen of sweat glistened on her pale skin. I could almost feel the warmth of her breath as she parted her lips slightly, could almost smell the musky aroma of her sex flooding the room with that unmistakable scent.

But then, sharply and quite clearly, I heard her call out his name again and again as the rapping of the headboard became more frantic and insistent. The erection that had been straining against my boxers and begging for release melted as quickly as if it had been dipped in ice water. Every nerve in my body suddenly felt as if it had been set on edge and I slipped out of bed and stormed into the kitchen, hoping that maybe I could find a bit of peace and quiet.

And now that I had, the events of the day kept replaying in my mind like news footage. The riot on the street. The explosion as the helicopter took out the entire side of the bank. Later, once the sounds of fighting had faded into memory, the fire trucks dutifully showed up to hose the blood and ashes into the gutters while men in what looked to be white, paper uniforms threw the dead into the backs of flatbed trucks. Hours after that the knock on the door: three soldiers, two with their weapons trained on me as the third scrawled information onto a clipboard he carried.

Only two adults in the household?

No, four. Our friends are staying with us. Their house was firebombed when the trouble went down near Brixton.

Names?

Polly Wainwright. Cody Preston.

Any children?

Thank God, no.

Are there any weapons in the house, sir? Any firearms, explosive devices, or blades greater than eight inches in length?

No… no, nothing like that at all.

Jane’s voice calling out from somewhere behind me: We don’t believe in guns. We’re all pacifists, you know.

Pacifists or not, I’m still required to verify the information you’ve provided. Step aside, please.

Before the soldiers left, the one with the clipboard filled out a ration card that was no bigger than a driver’s license and added his signature to the bottom. He handed it to me, remaining expressionless as his eyes took one final glance around the room.

Supply trucks will be at the corner of Bentley and Jefferson tomorrow at oh-ten-hundred hours. Do not fold, bend, spindle, or mutilate this card. Failure to present the card, or if it has been damaged in any way, will result in a denial of rations. Furthermore, any attempts to alter the information contained on it in any way will be punishable to the fullest extent of the law.

Once the soldiers had moved on to the next apartment, Jane suggested that Cody and I should go together the next morning to pick up the supplies. She said it would do us both some good to get out of the house for a while, to take in some fresh air, and to have some “man time”.

Cody’s face had drained of all color and his eyes had the expression of a squirrel who was trapped on the median of a busy highway. He stammered like a damn fool and, even though his words were saying the exact opposite, I knew that he didn’t want to go with me any more than I wanted him there.

“Look,” I finally explained, “what happens if trouble breaks out while we’re gone? I think one of us should stay with you girls. I’ll go get the supplies and be back in no time flat.”

“He’s right you know. He’s got a point. I should stay here. I really should.”

The damn coward. But at least I would have a little time away from the simpering idiot the next day. I swear, twenty-four more hours of listening to that fake accent and I’ll be ready to pitch him off the balcony.

I hear the floorboards in the living room creak and soft, shuffling footsteps. I swear to God, that better not be Cody. I don’t think I could handle that right now.

The beaded curtain parts and it feels as if my entire body has sighed in relief: it’s Polly.

She doesn’t notice me sitting there at first. She’s wearing this long t-shirt that comes down just below her thighs. It’s light gray and, because my eyes have adapted to sitting in the dark for so long, I can make out one of those little fishes that True Believers like to put on their cars. What Jane refers to as “Jesus Fish”. Only this one has little legs attached to it and the name Darwin written in the very center. Surrounding the symbol, in large block letters, are the words EVOLVE OR DIE. Her hair looks as if she’s rubbed a balloon all over it and used the static charge to make it jut out in little tufts; her cheeks are flushed and the subtle scent of dried sweat follows her into the room like a faithful dog at its master’s feet.

She shambles over to the fridge and throws open the door, blinding me for a moment with the unexpected light. I cup my hand over my brow, shielding my eyes from the stinging glare, and blink away the needles of pain.

Polly bends over to dig around on the bottom shelf and the hem of her shirt raises to the small of her back. She’s not wearing any underwear and I see these two perfect ass cheeks staring back at me: tight and firm from hours spent at the gym, little twin dimples on either side. My pulse quickens and I look away as she pulls a bottled water from the shelf and closes the door.

“Oh hey,” she seems unsure of her words and begins to fidget slightly, tugging at the bottom of her shirt as if she could stretch it a little lower, “I didn’t, uh, see you there, Richard. Umm… can’t sleep?”

I glance back at her and try to keep my voice from betraying the little quiver that vibrates somewhere between my heart and gut.

“Yeah. Keep thinking about everything that happened today. It’s crazy.”

“Tell me about it.”

She sounds relieved, as if she were perhaps expecting me to say something about the noise of her lovemaking. Perhaps to buy a few seconds time, she twists off the lid of the bottle and takes a swig; I try not to stare as her throat moves slightly while she swallows.

Wiping her lips with the back of her hand, she makes her way to the table and pulls up a chair across from me. So close now that I can smell the faint hint of her perfume, like wildflowers after a spring rain; but there’s also the slight smell of passion still clinging to her like a needy lover.

Cody had left an empty yogurt cup on the table and she pulls it to her; for the first time, I notice the pack of cigarettes in her other hand. Flipping open the top of the box, she slides out a lighter and a smoke.

“You know,” I warn, “Jane will have your head if she catches you smoking that in here.”

Polly shrugs and flicks the lighter in the semi-darkness. She holds the flame to the tip and puffs slowly. Half closing her eyes, she blows out the smoke through pursed lips, a long slow plume that hangs in the air like a bluish nebula in the depths of space.

“Yeah, well what Jane doesn’t know won’t hurt her, right?”

Polly winks at me and I feel as if my heart has forgotten to beat as my breath catches in my throat. Is she talking about smoking? Or something else? Something more?

“Uh, yeah… I guess. I mean, I won’t tell her or anything.”

She takes another drag off the cigarette and the ember glows like a meteor just before it begins to burn up in the atmosphere. The apartment is so quiet that I can hear the tobacco crackle slightly as she inhales and I wonder if she can hear the way my heart is pounding in my chest….

“So what do you make of all this, Richard?” she finally asks. “Every time we talk about it, you kinda clam up. I mean, you take part in the conversation, don’t get me wrong. But you never really share your thoughts, you know?”

I lean back in my chair and look up at the ceiling for what seems to be an eternity before committing myself to an answer.

“The way I see it, people just don’t give a damn any more. I mean, it would be easy if we could blame this on some kind of disease. Some virus or something. At least then it would kind of make sense.”

Polly nods her head as she flicks her ashes into the yogurt cup. But she stays silent, letting me talk. If I’d been having this conversation with Jane right now, you can bet she would’ve already had some little counter to what I’d said. Maybe something along the lines of not enough research being done to entirely discount a viral theory. But Polly, God bless her, was content to simply listen and smoke. Which was good. It gave me a chance to actually sort out and piece together the scattered thoughts that had been going through my mind over the last several weeks. To try to form some kind of coherent reasoning.

“But this? This is scarier. A disease can be cured. An infection can be stopped.”

“So, if not a disease… then what?”

I reach across the table and pull her pack of cigarettes toward me. She raises her eyebrows but doesn’t really say anything as I fish one out and light up my own. The smoke feels scratchy in my throat and my eyes immediately start to water. But God, it feels good… like running into an old lover who you haven’t thought of in years only to find that old spark still exists.

“You want to know what I really think?”

I feel slightly woozy from the nicotine. Or maybe from Polly’s scent, so maddeningly close. Or maybe both.

“What I think is that civilization is this really fragile thing. I mean, we have laws that were designed to protect us. But the only reason those laws work is because the majority of people want to be good. They want to have order. They choose to obey… and that’s what makes our society function.”

“Well, you got to keep in mind that if you break those laws you go to jail, Richard. Fear of losing freedom… that’s a pretty strong incentive, isn’t it?”

Her voice sounds husky and soft, like a starlet from some old film noir movie. I take another draw from my cigarette and hold the smoke in, using it as an excuse to simply admire her for a moment without needing to continue the conversation. She really is beautifu those high cheeks bones, that perfect nose, the creases in her brow….

“Not really.” I finally say. “I mean, let’s face it. There’s a lot more normal people than there are cops and soldiers. If everyone decided, all at the same time, to simply do whatever the hell they wanted there really wouldn’t be anything the authorities could do about it.”

Polly narrows her eyes and chews on her bottom lip for a moment as she thinks over what I’d said. For the first time, I see a hint of fear touch her eyes. As if she’d finally realized that this was something more than just an intellectual exercise.

“And you think that’s what’s happening? That people are just… well, just giving up on society?”

“It’s the only thing that makes any sense. At least, to me. And that, my dear, is precisely why I can’t get to sleep tonight. In a nutshell.”

Polly glances over her shoulder, almost as if she’s afraid that some shadow might be sneaking up behind her. She rubs her arms briskly and even in the darkness of the kitchen I can see the goose bumps creeping along her soft flesh.

I know that I’ve been laying it on a bit thick, spacing out my words with dramatic pauses and speaking in tones normally reserved for melodramatic b-films. But, to be perfectly honest, there’s kind of a small thrill in knowing that you’ve entirely captivated a beautiful woman. Knowing that a seed of fear has been planted and that maybe, just maybe, somewhere deep in the back of her mind she is seeing you as a potential hero. Someone who’ll protect her and make sure that nothing bad ever darkens her doorstep.

“If you’re right… and I’m not saying you are, mind you… but if you are then there’s really no hope, is there?”

“Honey, I don’t think there’s been any hope for a long, long time. And that’s precisely why we find ourselves in this current predicament.”

<p>CHAPTER THREE</p>

The smell of smoke still hangs heavy in the air, thick and greasy, like the ghost of a refinery explosion. I wonder to myself how long it will take for that particular stink to dissipate, for the air to simply smell normal again? Even the warm breeze that blows across the streets doesn’t do much to help scatter the stench. Instead, it’s almost as if the wind is scooping it up from the burnt out shells of buildings, carrying it down alleys and throughways, and depositing it into a cloud that hangs just over our heads.

Stay within the yellow lines….

The voice from the loudspeaker sounds as emotionless and cold as a computer. Hell, for all I know it could actually be one. After all, I can’t really see a microphone or anyone speaking the words. Just these drab green cones attached to every tenth telephone pole, a thin black wire stringing them together and disappearing somewhere into the distance.

Anyone straying from the yellow lines will be dealt with immediately.

Soldiers stroll up and down the sidewalks, machine guns slung over their shoulders as their eyes scan the crowd for even the slightest ripple of discontent. A few look scared, as if they’re afraid the assemblage will suddenly fall upon them and rip the weapons from their hands before they’ve even managed to squeeze off a shot; but most of them all wear the same solemn, tight lipped expression of neutrality.

The use of deadly force has been authorized. I repeat… the use of deadly force has been authorized.

I’ve been standing in line for nearly an hour now and have only moved forward a block or so. My kidneys feel as if someone is plunging knives into them and my bladder is demanding relief as I curse myself for not having the foresight to take a leak before leaving the house.

Please have your ration card and identification at the ready. Keep the line moving in an orderly fashion.

By now I know the spiel well enough that I could recite it word for word, pausing in all the right places for just the right amount of time. Which is really no mean feat: it’s basically the same message, after all, repeated over and over as we shuffle forward.

Do not attempt to make contact with the soldiers protecting you.

Protecting. That’s a good one. It feels more like they’re herding us. It’s all too easy to imagine that this long string of people are nothing more than livestock. That once we round the corner we’ll have little tags affixed to our ears and be loaded into cattle cars. Shipped off to slaughterhouses and processed for consumption.

Do not attempt to make contact with those in front of or behind you.

Christ Almighty, I should have gotten more sleep last night. Everything looks grainy and my eyes feel as if I’ve got little pieces of grit trapped in them. Grit that scratches and itches and burns.

Stay within the yellow lines….

It’s Polly’s fault, really. She kept me talking in the kitchen, kept asking all those questions about what I thought, how I felt, what my opinion was on this or that: and every so often she’d drop her cigarette and bend over to pick it up. The neckline of her shirt would sag and I could see nipples like little pencil erasers on these firm, round breasts. The first time it happened I thought maybe it was just an accident, that she’d simply grown comfortable enough around me to not realize how she was exposing herself; the second time, however, I began to wonder if maybe she were doing it on purpose. If she wanted me to see those beautiful mounds of flesh. So I kept finding reasons to stay up longer, new topics to discuss with her. All in the hopes of seeing if she would drop another cigarette. Or the lighter. Or the lid to her water bottle.

Anyone straying from the yellow lines will be dealt with immediately.

I ended up with around two hours of sleep, I’d say. Not nearly enough. I feel like every muscle in my body is wound up as tightly as a spring; I’m tired, cranky, and I really, really have to piss. But, as I’m so often reminded, I’m not allowed to ask the soldiers if there’s any way I can use the bathroom. I’m not even allowed to step outside the damn yellow line.

The use of deadly force has been authorized. I repeat…

Yeah, yeah, I know: the use of deadly force has been authorized. But to be perfectly honest I would almost be willing to take a bullet right now as long as it pierced my bladder and relieved some of this fucking pressure. Next time, Cody comes for the supplies. Let that little weasel deal with this shit while I stay home, all snug and secure with a bathroom only feet away.

Please have your ration card and identification at the ready. Keep the line moving in an orderly fashion.

Do not attempt to make contact with the soldiers protecting you.

Do not attempt to make contact with those in front of or behind you.

Stay within the yellow lines….


By the time I’d made it to the little tent with the desk beneath, it was too late. I simply couldn’t hold out any longer. Warmth spread across the crotch of my jeans and trickled down my thighs as the sharp stench of urine filled the air like a pungent cloud. Luckily, I’d worn dark jeans so it wasn’t obvious where the source of the smell was coming from. It could have been the old man in front of me. Or the lady who kept stepping on the heel of my shoe every time we managed to take a few steps forward.

“Ration card and identification.”

I handed the soldier the requested documents and noticed that his nose wrinkled slightly, as if the smell of my piss stung his nostrils. Good. Served the bastard right.

He glanced from my ID to my face and then back to the ID again.

“Richard W. Hall?”

I’d nodded my head, unclear as to whether answering his questions would be considered making contact with one of the soldiers protecting me.

He sighed as if he had been through this same routine a thousand times and in that fraction of a second I realized that this man hated his job. And, for some reason, I gleaned a bit of satisfaction from that realization; as if this somehow knocked him down to the same level as me and the long line of people stretching back and around the corner.

“You’re going to have to speak to answer my questions. It’s okay, understand? It’s okay to talk to me. Now… what’s your address and social security number, Mr. Hall?”

Amazing. Even when things are literally falling apart around you, the bureaucracy rolls on and on.

After verifying all of my information to the man’s satisfaction, another soldier pulled a large box from the back of a truck and dropped it into my arms. The thing felt as heavy as a small child and I was assured that there was enough inside to last a full week if we doled it out wisely; another officer would be around in the future to issue a new ration card and I, or someone else residing in my household, could come back next week at the same time and location to claim further supplies.

As I staggered along the streets, I began to feel eyes upon me. I could sense the other people looking at my box of food and necessities, could almost feel their desire to possess it like a beam of warmth penetrating my skull. Even though my back ached from carting this huge box around, I tried to rise to my full height, to puff my chest out in the hopes that it might be mistaken for muscle. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think I could be considered in any way, shape, or form to be weak. A little out of shape maybe. Forty hours of pushing a mouse around every week for the last seven years will do that to a man. Your belly ends up getting a little rounder and you lose some of the tone that used to make your biceps as taut as piano wires. But out here on the streets, where violence could break out as easily as you might sneeze, every little advantage helped. So if there was any way I could make it seem like there might be an easier target then, by God, I was going to take it.

Still, I didn’t like being out in the open. I kept thinking that I heard someone’s footsteps running up behind me, imaging someone’s breath on the back of my neck, mistaking my own shadow for someone else’s. Every few seconds I stole a glance over my shoulder and felt a little of the tension in my shoulders release when I realized that the other people were still just standing on the sidewalk or were ducking into their own houses and apartments. So I continued walking. But within a few minutes I wondered: is that the echo of my own footsteps bouncing off the buildings? Or someone else’s? Someone trying to mirror my pace, to disguise the sound of their approach beneath my own little noises? And then the entire scene would replay itself like a bad loop film.

So that’s why I’m standing here now, glancing back and forth from the street ahead to the little alley to my left. The street has the advantage of being patrolled by police and soldiers; but there’s still no guarantee that I won’t be attacked. When the violence flares, the people taking part in it are like a packs of wild dogs. They pounce upon the victim with speed and cunning, their ferocity and the element of surprise helping to isolate their prey even further. I’ve seen this time and time again on news broadcasts and reality cop shows. One moment it’s just like any other day. Everything is quiet, life goes on as it always has. Next thing you know, a mob of people explode in a flurry of aggression, flailing with fists and feet and teeth and nails. If it’s not put down quickly, it grows like a force of nature… like a whirlwind that sucks people into its vortex… and suddenly the entire street is filled with screams and breaking glass and the blood begins to flow long before the first sirens ever start to respond.

But if I cut down the alley there’s less chance of being seen. Fewer people to covet my box of goodies. And, if I’m not mistaken, I can actually network through these alleys and probably cut a good ten minutes off the trip back home. So that settles it: the less time I’m out here in the streets the better.

The alley smells like rotten vegetables and is lined with overflowing dumpsters. It’s been close to a week and a half since I’ve seen a garbage truck in this town and trash is starting to pile up everywhere. When the dumpsters can’t hold any more litter, people just start piling the bags up around them. Stray dogs and rats come along, shred the thin plastic with their claws and teeth, strew refuse all over the place, and make a damn mess out of everything. On top of this, the bricks walls are covered with graffiti, loops and swirls of some cryptic alphabet that I can never hope to comprehend, and I start to wonder how I’ll explain the sour stench of urine wafting from my pants once I get home? Can I really tell Polly and Jane that I stood in line for so long that I pissed myself? That I reverted into nothing more than a small child who couldn’t control even the simplest of body functions?

In a word, this sucks. It feels like I’m the one being punished while the rest of the world just does whatever the hell they want, takes whatever the hell they want whenever the hell they want it. All my life I’ve tried to play by the rules. I graduated high school, got my college diploma and netted a cushy little office job. I met a nice girl, resisted the temptations of other — sometimes prettier — girls and would probably end up proposing to her within a year or so. I wore the right clothes, went to all the right hot spots, read the right books, and listened to the right music. And yet, somehow, life was still a constant struggle. There was never enough money to last from one paycheck to the next, the bills always required juggling, and every time it seemed like a little extra money had come my way some problem or another would rear its ugly head and require even more cash than what I had on hand. But I kept on with the charade so that my friends would never suspect how precariously I was balanced on the tightrope of finances. I kept on pretending everything was fine while those damn hooligans ran free through the cities, satisfying their hearts’ every desire, their every whim. I guarantee none of them smell like piss because they spent the better part of the day waiting in line for a friggin’ handout.

Listen to me. I sound like a spoiled child who can’t have that shiny, new toy. I need to get home, get some sleep. Or at least a nice hot cup of coffee if nothing else.

I round the corner and find myself in a new stretch of alley. Up ahead, there’s an old man and he seems to be struggling with his own box. It’s smaller than mine, probably only enough for one or two people, but his arms are so frail and his back so bent that I’m sure it feels twice as heavy to him.

Poor old guy. If the world is this confusing to me, how must it be for him?

He takes these tiny Geisha-girl steps and I wonder how long it’s taken him to make it this far? For every step he takes, I cover three times the distance. He’s now so close that I can see the liver spots on the back of his head, the wrinkles creasing his neck, and the way his pants seem to be slowly sliding down his hips as if his belt isn’t quite tight enough. I don’t know whether he’s deaf or trusting, but he never looks over his shoulder to see who’s coming up behind him. Not even when I clear my throat in an attempt to announce my presence.

But why am I feeling sorry for him? He’s had a long life, this old timer. I’m sure he’s seen his share of hardships, but he won’t have to suffer through the madness that’s gripped this country much longer. By the looks of him, he’s only got six months to a year of life left in him. Tops. He’ll probably die peacefully in his sleep while I stand in line for another fucking supply box, reeking of piss again. If, that is, there’s even still any supplies to go around. By then the whole world could have gone tits up. And I’m not being dramatic. I really think that’s a possibility. The violence grows worse with each passing week. The outbreaks happen more frequently, involve more people. And, as the militia members who brought down the helicopter yesterday prove, in some ways they’re getting more organized. Six months from now I might consider myself lucky to have a little box like his. I’ll be starving and suffering and he’ll be laying peacefully within his grave with not a care in the world.

I’m just behind him now and I can smell Ben-Gay waft off his body like it was damn cologne. And he still doesn’t have a clue I’m there.

Or maybe he just doesn’t care anymore. Maybe he’s resigned to the fact that he’ll die in this alley. Is that why he took it to begin with? An act of voluntary euthanasia, perhaps? Seems to me he would have felt safer in plain view of the police and soldiers. Not back here in this alley where no one would hear him scream.

For some reason, I think of the soldier at the little tent who took all my information before gracing me with this box I’m lugging around. What was that he said? That this would be enough to last a week… if we doled it out wisely? What the hell did that mean anyway? What if we didn’t dole it out wisely? Was it too much of a stretch of imagination to think that might be a possibility? I mean, it’s not like anyone give me any instructions with this damn box. No one said only eat x amount of food every x amount of hours and you’ll be fine. No, I was just given what feels like a container of bricks and basically told to make it last.

And this old man? There’s a good chance that he could drop dead of a heart attack at any minute, the way he’s straining with that box of his. I can see the muscles and veins standing out on his neck, can now see how his arms tremble beneath the weight, and can hear his wheezing breath. Even if he does manage to make it back to his home, what happens if he dies tonight? All that food just sitting around in his pantry while flies lay eggs in his eyes… all that food going to waste.

I realize I’m holding my own box directly over my head and my own muscles are quivering with exertion. For a moment, I’m confused: why the hell am I walking like this? What the hell am I doing?

Then, without another thought, I’m bringing my arms down with as much force as I can muster. The edge of my box slams into the back of the old man’s head and I see a bright red spray of blood spurt from his scalp as his body pitches forward. His box skids across the alley and he’s sprawled on his belly, feeling the back of his head with hands that came away warm and sticky with his own blood.

He rolls over and his eyes are wide with fear, magnified and distorted by the thick lenses of his glasses. He lips move like he’s searching for words but no sound escapes from his frail throat.

I feel like I’m about to throw up. What the fuck have I done? Why did I do that? What the hell was I thinking?

Tears well up in the corners of the old guy’s eyes as he starts scrambling backward and I see his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as he struggles for a breath.

Shit. He’s going to start screaming. Start yelling for help.

What if someone hears him?

What if a soldier or cop is patrolling the other end of the alley?

They’ll kill me. Shoot me dead on the spot, no questions asked.

The man’s lips quiver and I know the scream is working its way up through his lungs.

I can’t let him scream.

I don’t want to die.

I don’t want to be killed in a dirty fucking alley with pants that smell of piss.

I don’t want to die.

My box thumps to the ground as I launch myself at the old man. My body crashes into his and I feel the air whoosh from his lungs with a small moan as my knee grinds into his groin. He falls backward again and his throat is in my hands and it feels so thin and fragile, like a chicken bone really. Squeezing, compressing so tightly that my knuckles turn white and my hands throb with pain.

His eyes bulge as if I’m about to pop them right out of his head and his lips look kind of bluish now and I squeeze harder, feeling the vibration of bones cracking through my palms. Blood begins to trickle from the corners of his mouth and suddenly he’s not struggling anymore, not clawing at my hands and clothes with arthritic fingers. His arms hang limply by his sides and his eyes look dull and glassy. But I have to make sure… I can’t risk him telling the authorities what happened, can’t take the chance that even a single breath might be hiding down there in his lungs. So I squeeze his throat until I’m sure there’s no chance he’ll ever get back up again.

I look over my shoulder, half expecting to see someone running down the alley toward me. But there’s no one in either direction. No witnesses to what I’ve just done.

Standing, I brush the dust off my pants and shirt. It doesn’t seem right to just leave the old guy laying out in the alley like this…. I toss some of the bags out of one of the dumpsters, just enough so that I can hoist his body over the side and bury him beneath the mounds of garbage. This whole place smells like rot, anyway. No one will ever notice. No one will wonder what that strange smell is as his body begins to decay.

I grab my box off the ground and then stoop and place the old man’s supplies on top of it.

My heart is hammering in my chest faster than I ever thought possible and every sound, every sight, every smell seems to be somehow amplified. It’s like all of my senses have kicked into overdrive and for the first time in my life I actually feel powerful. Invincible, even.

And these extra supplies? Well, they’ll make sure we have enough to see us through regardless of whether or not we dole them out wisely.

We’ll be just fine, us four.

I’ll make sure of that.

<p>CHAPTER FOUR</p>

I’m standing in the hallway of our building and it feels like every ounce of energy I’ve ever possessed has decided to take an extended hiatus. The muscles in my legs tremble like Jell-O and my arms are wracked with cramps from carrying the boxes; the small of my back feels like I’ve been whacked with a two-by-four and waves of darkness keep threatening to overtake me. I shake my head like a dog flinging off water and kick the door with the tip of my loafer.

“It’s me… open up. I’ve got the stuff.”

My voice sounds slurred and distant, like a drunkard speaking through the end of a long pipe.

Nothing but silence within the apartment, so I kick again. Harder this time.

“Damn it, open the door! This shit is heavy!”

I can hear faint footsteps on the other side, whispers so vague I can only make out sounds and not voices or distinct words. I kick again, this time so hard that pain flares through my toes as the tip of my shoe jars against the wood.

“Who’s there?”

Jane’s voice, sounding like a frightened little girl. Why the hell doesn’t she just use the peephole and see who the fuck is there? The stupid cunt.

I try to swallow my irritation, to keep it from showing in my voice and tone. It feels like a hard lump of gristle stuck in my throat and I close my eyes for a second to keep the hallway from wavering in and out of focus.

“Publisher’s Fucking Clearing House. Who the hell do you think it is? Open the damn door, Jane. I said this shit is heavy!”

So much for keeping my cool.

I hear the chain rattle and then the click of the deadbolt. The doorknob turns and the door swings open. She stands there for a moment with her hands on her hips, her lips thin and tight as she glares at me.

“There’s no need to get snappy.” she spits. “It could’ve been anyone. How was I supposed to know?”

Apparently she has no intention of moving out of the doorway, so I shoulder my way by her.

Richard!

Staggering into the living room, I see Polly and Cody. They stand there watching me like I was the lead character in private drama playing out just for them. Jane slams the door shut and stomps across the room.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into you! You didn’t have to push me.”

No one offers to help. No one makes a move at all. Except for Jane and she’s too busy pacing around the living room and wagging her finger while she prattles on and on about how she won’t tolerate domestic violence in any way shape or form. Please. All I did was let myself into my own home. Is it my fault that she wouldn’t get out of the way?

Fuck ’em. I made it this far on my own. I guess a few more steps to the kitchen won’t really matter.

Cody is standing by the coffee table and he’s looking at me like I’m some kind of trained monkey. One who might be dangerous or perhaps just mildly amusing. As I pass the worthless twit, he sniffs several times and wrinkles his nose as he begins fanning his hand in front of his face.

“My God, man, you smell like an outhouse.”

All the frustration of the morning bubbles over like an unattended kettle. I slam the boxes of supplies down onto the coffee table, throw them really, and there’s a sharp crack as the cheap wood gives out. The yin-yang design splinters into half a dozen pieces as coffee mugs and saucers crash to the ground.

“Well maybe next time, you’d like to go get the fuckin’ supplies! Maybe you’d like to waste half your day being told that if you step outside the precious yellow line you’ll end up with a damn bullet in your head! Son of bitch!”

I’m all up in his face, spraying spittle with each word and Cody’s trying to back away but I’ve got the lapels of his shirt in a vice-like grip. His eyes dart about the room and he winces with each word.

They would have shot me! DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?”

I feel hands pulling me backward, yanking me away as my name is repeated again and again; but as quickly as the anger flared up, it’s gone and I’m simply tired, scared, and frustrated beyond belief. I let his shirt slip through my fingers as the girls pull me away and then fall to my knees in the center of the floor.

“They would have shot me.”

My voice is small and weak now and the tears start streaming down my face. My body hitches with sobs and snot bubbles from my nose and I smell like piss and there’s an old man lying in a dumpster somewhere with the rats and maggots and trash. And all I can do is rock back and forth, repeating over and over: stay within the yellow lines, stay within the yellow lines….

I wake up on the couch with an afghan thrown across me and a bolster pillow beneath my head. Every muscle in my body is sore and I’ve got a headache that feels like there’s a cluster of fingertips pressing behind my left eye. It’s dark outside now and I can hear the others in the kitchen.

“Zax is not a word, Cody.”

“It is too, Jane. Check the dictionary. It’s a tool commonly used in slate roofing. It’s also a triple-letter score. Which, if I’m not mistaken puts me in the lead.”

“Hey there, sleepyhead.”

It’s Polly’s voice. She’s leaning in the doorway that leads down the hall, a half grin across her face.

“How you feeling?”

This evening she’s in jeans and a t-shirt that says Life Begins At The End Of Your Comfort Zone. Her left arm jingles with bangles and it might be just my imagination but I think there’s something different in the way she’s looking at me. Almost like she’s truly seeing me for the first time.

“Better.” I mumble as I sit up. “Sore.”

“You kind of freaked everyone out a bit earlier. At first Jane was pretty pissed, but when you started crying… well, none of us really knew what to do, you know?”

We look at each other from across the room and I pull the cover tightly around me as I take a slow breath through my nose. Polly takes a few steps and her voice drops to a near whisper.

“It was bad out there, wasn’t it?”

I nod silently.

“There was blood on your shirt when we started taking your clothes off for you. After you passed out. Or fell asleep. Or whatever that was.”

I close my eyes and can clearly see the box coming down on the back of the old man’s head.

“It wasn’t yours, was it?”

I shake my head slowly.

“You need to talk about it?”

I shake my head again.

“How ’bout coffee? Nothing fancy. Just straight-up old fashioned black coffee?”

I nod and she leans forward and kisses my forehead. She smells so clean and fresh, so lovely.

“I’ll be right back, okay? You just stay right here.”

Someone has cleaned up the mess I made. Hard to believe that the coffee table I shelled out so much for shattered so damn easily. I really liked that table, too. It’s a shame, really.

I hear whispering from the kitchen now. No more arguments over words and tiles and scores; and I’m sure I’m the big topic of discussion. Crazy Richard.

The funny thing, though, is I don’t really regret it. Killing the old man, I mean. We needed those supplies worse than he did. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. Let’s face it, the writing’s on the wall and it’s a lot easier to read than that gang graffiti in the alley . The military don’t threaten to shoot civilians for simply stepping out of line. Not unless the shit’s about to really hit the fan. An old guy like him? He’d never be able to survive what’s coming down the pike. The young, the old, the sick, and frail… they’ll all fall flat on their faces into a river of blood while the strong use their bodies as stepping stones.

Yesterday, I probably would have been among those who couldn’t bear the weight and responsibility of survival. But I’m a different man than the one who walked out that door with his little ration card in one hand and his worries in the other. Sure… I’m still afraid. Change is always scary and I’d be a fool not to be a little wary. But there’s a difference between a healthy fear and paralyzing terror. And I know now that I can do whatever it takes to survive.

Change is good….

I’m lying in bed with Jane and she’s flipping through the pages of a magazine. We haven’t said a word to each other for nearly the past hour, but it’s not an angry silence. It’s more like we’ve simply ran out of things to say. She’s content to be lost in her world of gossip and fashion and I pretend to be engrossed in whatever book this is in my hands. But I’m really thinking about Polly. To be extremely specific, I’m thinking about Polly and her t-shirts.

I’ve never really been one to believe in all that mystical mumbo-jumbo. The way I see it, most of it can simply be explained away by the power of suggestion and the weakness of the human mind. The need to believe in something greater. That there’s some Master Plan behind this shipwreck we call life and we’re not all just bobbing along on our lifeboats and hoping to be saved. But now I’m starting to wonder.

See, I’m noticing patterns here. Patterns which seem to be a bit more than mere coincidence.

The night that the streets outside exploded with violence. What was it her shirt said that evening? Well behaved women rarely make history. Yeah, that was it. And we’re living through history right now, aren’t we? Things are changing out there and I get the feeling that the momentum has built too rapidly for anyone to ever dream of stopping it now. The military and police, the people in authority… they’re just going through the motions, trying to maintain an illusion of control for as long as humanly possible. So yeah, this is history in the making. And the well behaved women? Well, let’s just say they won’t fare well in all of this. It will be the wildcats who come out on top, the ones who aren’t afraid to make their own rules, to get their hands a little dirty, to fight and struggle and claw their way back up to the top of the food chain. Is Jane that type of woman?

I glance over at her. She’s just scratched some perfume sample and has lifted the page to her nose; she smiles with a tilt of her head and rubs the page on the sides of her neck before turning the page.

No, I don’t think so. Poor little Janey will be numbered among the faceless dead, I’m afraid.

But what about Polly? Hard to say there. She’s a tough one to read. Maybe so. If I’m right about this t-shirt theory of mine, that is.

That night, when we were smoking and talking in the kitchen, I had this idea in the back of my mind that I’d only hinted at. I’d mentioned the changes I saw going down, and put forth the same premise I was just thinking about… more or less. The weak will perish and the strong will survive.

Her shirt at that time was the one that said Evolve or Die.

And after everything that happened, after the supply line, after the old man and the dumpster, after smashing the coffee table into unrecognizable bits; after all that, what’s the first thing I see when I open my eyes? Polly. In a shirt reading Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. Well, I stepped way the hell out of mine didn’t I? And in those moments after I’d killed the old man, when the adrenaline was still coursing through my veins and my senses were more keenly acute than they have ever been… in those moments, for the first time, I truly felt alive. I knew what it meant to be the hunter, the provider, the alpha dog of the pack. And I liked it. I really liked it.

So, here’s the question: are Polly’s shirts messages from some higher power? Are they meant to guide me along this strange, new path I’ve found myself on? Or is it more secular than that? Is she specifically choosing these shirts? Is she the one speaking to me in a type of clothing code, telling me all the things she can’t really vocalize in front of the others?

I’ll have to pay closer attention. Which, to be perfectly honest, shouldn’t be too big of a challenge. After all, it’s a perfect excuse to look at her chest.

There’s a soft knock on the door and Cody pokes his head through. What the hell does he want?

“Hey, guys” his tone is soft and apologetic, the voice of fodder, “sorry to interrupt but we thought you might want to see this.”

He’s quiet for a second as he swallows hard and tries not to make eye contact.

“The White House.” he finally says. “It’s on fire.”

<p>CHAPTER FIVE</p>

Cody, as it turns out, is a master of the understatement. It wasn’t just the White House that’s burning… it’s damn near the entire city of DC. We cluster around the television in the guest room, cloaked in silence as we watch the news reports roll in.

Jane is leaning forward with one hand over her mouth as if she’s stifling a burp that never comes. She rocks back and forth like a mental patient and slowly shakes her head no. Polly is sitting cross-legged on the floor and Cody keeps trying to put his arm around her, to pull her close, but she keeps shrugging him off which I secretly find to be the funniest thing I’ve seen all week. He’s persistent, like a goofy little puppy so eager to please that it doesn’t matter how many times he gets swatted on the nose. He just keeps coming back again and again and again.

I’m standing near the back of the room with my arms crossed over my chest, alternating my attention between the images that play out across the little television screen and wondering if I can see down the front of Polly’s shirt if I angle myself just right.

“Damn it, Cody… no. I’m trying to watch!”

The news keeps cycling through various footage which all seem to be variations on a single theme. The silhouette of the White House with a wall of orange and red flames blazing behind it, little yellow tongues licking through windows, hungry for every bit of oxygen they could ever hope to consume. Cut to the Lincoln Memorial, Honest Abe’s stony face flickering in light and shadow, and then to the Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, and finally to the giant obelisk of the Washington Monument: it stands like some sort of Egyptian stronghold rising up through the fires of Hell. The trees on either side of the National Mall are ablaze and mirror images of the destruction ripple in the waters of the reflecting pool.

“It’s like something of Biblical proportions out here, Nancy.” an unseen reporter yells at the anchorwoman. “The heat… the heat from these fires is just… well, it’s truly beyond words. Never in all my days have I seen anything like….”

“Carlos?”

The camera cuts to a woman in the studio who looks as if she were pulled out of bed and not given the chance to put her TV face on. Her makeup is smeared and crooked, her hair looks as if she’s been repeatedly pulling clumps free with her fingers, and her suit jacket is buttoned incorrectly.

“Carlos, I’m afraid we have to cut in for a moment. My producers…”

She puts a hand to one ear and tilts her head slightly for a moment.

“My producers are informing me that reports are coming in from all major metropolitan areas across the country: New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle, even Anchorage, Alaska. All of these cities have reported widespread fires that simply seemed to ignite as if from nowhere. There are further reports of looting and riots on a massive scale, but these have not been independently confirmed and should not, at this time, be necessarily linked with these out of control fires burning through our largest cities.”

The anchorwoman listens to her earpiece again and continues on in the same, breathless voice.

“This just in. Las Vegas has joined the ranks of the cities confirmed to be burning and an evacuation plan has been set into motion. We take you now to local affiliate….”

Jane is rocking even faster now and she keeps whispering my God, oh my god, my dear sweet God and I can see a single tear sliding down her cheek in the bluish glow of the television. Polly has now pushed herself as far from Cody as she can possibly get and he sits, skulking and ineffectual, near the edge of the bed.

Jane’s switched her mantra now. It’s the same pattern of words basically, the same teary over-emotional tone whispered into her hands: all those people, those poor, poor people….

On the television a reporter with a pencil thin mustache is standing at some undisclosed location. Or at least if it was disclosed I missed hearing about it because of Jane’s incessant whimpering. He holds a microphone with a cube just underneath the foam globe and the cube has a bright orange 9 that looks somehow manages to look cheerful without the benefit of expression.

“Excuse me, excuse me sir?”

He pulls a man by the sleeve into the frame of the shot and for a moment I notice how I can see distant fires reflected on the dial of the reporter’s wristwatch. But then he drops the arm and shoves the microphone into the face of someone who looks like he might be an accountant or perhaps a computer programmer.

“Vin Boucher, Channel Nine news. Sir, could you tell us what you’ve seen these last few minutes?”

The man ignores the camera, looking downward instead in silence.

“Sir, if you could just share with us some of your experiences, I think the viewing audience would greatly….”

“That’s a nice watch.”

“Excuse me?”

“That’s a nice damn watch.”

Without any warning, the accountant-looking man launches a fist into Vin Boucher’s face. He pummels him as blood begins to gush from a broken nose and a lip that has split like an overripe tomato. The reporter is trying to push the man away but they’re on the ground now, rolling and thrashing and flailing.

“Help him!” Jane screams at the television. “My God, put down the damn camera and help him!”

Vin Boucher’s face is streaked with blood and the sensitive microphone easily picks up his slight whimpers: “no, please stop, don’t, please…”

The guy pulls the watch from the reporter’s wrist and slides it onto his own. He admires it for a moment and then turns to look directly at the viewers.

“That’s a nice damn camera, too.”

The scene quickly cuts back to the newsroom where our disheveled Nancy is staring into the distance with her jaw hanging slightly open. The news feed at the bottom of the screen continues to scroll by but other than that nothing on the screen moves. It’s almost as if the entire studio has suddenly become frozen in time and I think how this shot would be worthy of being framed with all the other classics on our walls. But then the station quickly cuts to a commercial of spiky-haired Vince hawking his latest, life-changing innovation.

“He attacked that poor man. On live television! Just attacked him. For a watch? For a damn watch?”

Jane sounds like she’s bordering on hysteria, her voice raising in pitch until it’s so shrill that I’m surprised every glass in the house doesn’t instantly shatter.

What the hell is going on out there? What is fucking wrong with these people?”

She’s pacing around the room now, gesturing in the air with her hands like the conductor at a symphony of panic.

Cody, who has apparently given up on trying to comfort Polly, rushes over to Jane and takes her by the shoulders.

“Look, Jane.” he says in that annoying, fake accent of his. “We’re safe. That’s all that matters. We’re safe in here.”

I can’t help it. I start to laugh. At first it’s just a chuckle but the more I think about it, the funnier it seems and before long tears are streaming out of my eyes as I slap my thigh with my palm.

“What?” Jane screeches. “What is so damn funny, Richard?”

I wipe the tears from my eyes and sniffle a few times as I try to regain my composure.

“Sorry. I’m sorry. It’s just… well, do you honestly believe, Cody, that we’re really safe? Simply because we’re in this apartment?”

Cody looks flabbergasted and confused. Which, come to think of it, really isn’t that too far out of character for him.

“Yes. Yes, of course, we’re safe. Why wouldn’t…”

“Windows are made of glass.” I remind them. “Doors are made of wood. Last time I checked, neither one of those things were indestructible.”

“Now listen here, Richard, I’ve about had enough of….”

In the distance there’s a boom that severs the conversation as cleanly as a cleaver. It’s quickly followed by a second boom and then a third, each getting louder and closer with every repetition. Within seconds, we can feel the floor of the apartment quake with each successive clap and the little glass votive holders lining the shelves begin to rattle and shake. I’m reminded of the scene in Jurassic Park where the T-Rex is drawing closer and closer, it’s footsteps shaking the glass of water until the giant beast was bearing right down upon the heroes. Only I know what lurks outside the thin walls of this apartment is far more savage than any Hollywood dinosaur could ever dream of being. The beast bearing down upon us is the beast of change; and once it’s begun its charge there’s nothing anyone can do to put it down.

Through the thin linen curtains, we begin to see the flash of fireballs rising into the sky. Each one perfectly synchronized with one of the booms, each one bathing the room in brighter and brighter light.

And now there’s a sound from the streets below. A sound like the battle cry of five hundred warriors plucked from the streams of time and set down on the avenues of our fair city: Huns, Viking berserkers, the Spartans, and Samurai. William Wallace and his entire Scots army. The sound awakens something in my soul, some primal desire to feel the warmth of blood on my hands, to taste its saltiness on my lips, and smell the metallic aroma as it showers me with its holy spray. The desire to take what is rightfully mine and to defend it from anyone who mistakenly believes themselves to be man enough to take it from me.

Another explosion trembles our building and, at the same time, we’re plunged into darkness which causes a small shriek to escape from Jane. She’s pressed against me and I can feel her body shaking, but my eyes try to peer through the darkness, searching for Polly.

There’s a rumble of motors outside now, quickly followed by volley after volley of gunfire, more explosions, and cries of rage and pain. It also sounds like someone has begun to hammer on the main entrance to the door, as if they’re trying to pound it down with nothing more than bare fists and brute force.

“Jane.”

She’s latched onto me like a lamprey on a shark, but she seems unresponsive. It’s almost as if she’s caught somewhere between waking and a dream, her eyes vacant, her face pale and expressionless.

I shake her so hard her teeth rattle within her mouth.

“Damn it, Jane, snap the fuck out of it you stupid bitch!”

She blinks a few times and her brow furrows with confusion.

“You don’t have to get vulgar with me, Richard.”

I force myself to take the edge off my voice, to speak to her as if I were dealing with a small child.

“Janey, honey… you remember that trap door up on the top floor? The one with the little rope you have to pull? The one that leads up into the attic?”

She nods her head solemnly.

“Okay, Jane, I want you to take Polly up there, okay? You take her up there and you hide.”

Jane starts to pull away but then stops and has that confused look on her face again.

“What about you and Cody?”

Leave it to her to make something so simple into a major production that requires a committee meeting and detailed blueprints. I haven’t got time for this shit.

“We’ll be along shortly. Just take Polly to the attic, okay Janey? Take Polly to the attic.”

Polly appears in the darkness like a succubus materializing from thin air. She places her hand on Jane’s arm and looks at me with eyes that reflect understanding.

“Come on, Jane.” she says softly. “Why don’t you show me where this attic is, dearie.”

The two disappear into the darkness and moments later I hear our front door open and shut, followed by footsteps running up the stairs.

“What do you have in mind, Richard?”

Cody’s voice wavers with uncertainty and I know that in his heart of hearts, he’s wishing he was going with them. Upstairs to the attic. To hide with the other girls.

I don’t waste time answering him. I’m moving toward the kitchen now, my familiarity with the apartment guiding me effortlessly through the maze of furniture and obstacles. Cody isn’t quite as lucky and I hear him stumbling and cussing in the darkness behind me.

That Useless tit.

I’m in the kitchen now and I open the second drawer to the right of the sink, the one where the soldiers spent so much time measuring the blades of our knives during the weapons check. I pull out the longest one, a seven and a half inch chef’s knife. The blade is honed to such perfection that even in the darkness it gleams like a beacon of hope. Not bothering to shut the drawer, I push my way through the beaded curtain and into the living room just as Cody trips over an ottoman.

“Damn it,” I hiss, “haven’t your eyes started adjusting yet?”

“I got vision problems. I can’t see worth a dang and you damn well know that.”

I get a small burst of satisfaction to hear him drop the pretense and revert to his native twang.

“Now, you best be telling me real quick, Richard. What the hell’s the plan?”

I open the door of the apartment and point the knife into the hallway like a highwayman brandishing his sword.

“Stand and deliver.” I finally say softly. “Their money or their lives.”

From below, the pounding on the door has practically tripled in intensity. It’s a strong door, made of solid oak with nice iron hinges if I’m not mistaken. But how long can it hold out? How long until the violence of the street spills into the foyer and then up the stairs to the very threshold of my apartment?

How long indeed….

<p>CHAPTER SIX</p>

I stand on the landing with my heart beating tribal rhythms, whipping me into a blood frenzy that can only be sated with the promise of violence. I feel like my entire life has been building up to this point: all those years imprisoned in the cells of spreadsheets, the pleases and thank yous and May I. The toiling away for all the things I needed, but never coming even close to what I wanted. It had all been a precursor to this very moment, this particular point in time and history. After thirty-four years, I had finally become the man I was meant to be.

Which is more than I can say for the trembling buffoon behind me. He won’t last five minutes in this new world. Not unless he finds himself a stronger ally to attach himself to, not unless he becomes a bitch.

Outside there’s another burst of weapons fire. This sounds like fully automatic machine guns and bullets begin whizzing through the oak door at the bottom of the stairs. They tear through wood and plaster and the pounding noises abruptly come to an end, replaced by a crimson puddle that leaks under the door and spreads across the hallway like an invading cancer.

I’ve come to a realization as I stood here, ready for a battle which never quite made it to me: Ms Cline was right, for all the good it will do her now. I do want Polly.

But not in that sappy, happily-ever-after Disney storybook kind of way. No, I want her like some men want a shiny Cadillac with chrome trim and leather seats. I want her the way a bibliophile needs to have that first edition Kerouac to crown his collection. I want to own this beautiful, nubile, exotic young thing. I want her to be mine. Just like the accountant-looking guy wanted Vin Boucher’s shiny, gold watch.

And isn’t that what this new world is really about? You see something that you want and you take it. No questions. No justifications. No permission. You simply grab it and damn anyone who gets in your way.

I turn around and see that Cody looks as if he’s about to pass out. He’s leaning against the wall and panting like he’s just finished a marathon, shaking from his teeth all the way down to his knees. He’s so pale now that his goatee looks absolutely black in the half-darkness of the hall.

“I say,” he gasps, “that was a close one, wasn’t it? I thought for sure we were done for.”

The damn phony accent again. What the hell did Polly ever see in this loser? Maybe, it was simply a case of second bests. She couldn’t have me because she thought I was so wrapped up in Jane that it would never happen. Hard to believe that, for a long while, I’d believed that myself.

I take two steps and place my left hand on his shoulder.

“Well,” I say slowly, “one of us is.”

“What in blazes are you….”

I shove the chef’s knife into his gut and it feels just like stabbing an overstuffed pillow. He gasps sharply as his eyes grow large and round and his hands wrap around the handle protruding from his belly. Yanking the blade free, it slices through his palms, severing nerves and tendons, and his mouth is moving now like a fish who has been pulled from the river and thrown onto the bank to flounder and die.

I plunge the knife again, this time hooking my arm around his shoulders and pulling him into the thrust at the same time.

“You like that?” I hiss in his ears. “You want some more?”

Over and over, the blade pierces his skin; each time he shudders and gasps and soon I begin hitting bone and the jolt is like an electrical current that travels along my arm and vibrates in my shoulders.

My hand is sticky and warm now, like it’s been dipped into room-temperature glue and I feel almost stoned, perfectly aware of every sound, every sensation. Relishing every moment of my conquest.

I pull away and Cody staggers around the hallway for a moment, his arms cradling his gut like the pink intestines were a small baby that he could somehow protect. Dropping the knife, I rush toward him with a growl, pushing at his chest with my both my hands at the moment of impact. He stumbles backward and momentum carries his body over the railing; then he’s falling, end over end, bouncing off the hand rails and banisters and walls until his body hits the ground floor with a sound that’s like a thud, squish, and sharp crack all rolled into one.

It is complete now.

The competition has been removed from the playing field.

I look over the railing at Cody’s twisted, broken body for a moment and then go back into the apartment. I head into the kitchen and lather dish soap on my hands and forearms until it’s a pink froth; warm water washes the blood away and I watch as it swirls down the drain, realizing that it carries all the remnants of my old life with it.

I hear footsteps coming down the stairs. They sound tentative, as if the person is trying their hardest to achieve stealth but still failing miserably. A step, the squeak of a floorboard, a few moments of silence. Another step.

When the person reaches the landing I hear a sharp intake of breath and a sound like a hand being slapped over a mouth. Apparently whoever it is has seen the blood. And I imagine there’s quite a bit of it out there.

“Cody? Richard?”

Polly’s voice. She sounds as if she’s afraid to make a noise but knows that she has to. That if she doesn’t call out the suspense of not knowing will drive her mad.

“Anyone?”

“In the kitchen.” I reply as I dry my hands on the little towel with the art deco designs. The towel which Jane always said was decorative only. Which is probably one of the many reasons things had to change. Decorative towels. Form without function… that could very well be the epitaph on the tomb of humanity.

I hear the beaded curtain rattle behind me and my heightened senses pick up that unmistakable scent of Polly’s body. That tantalizing combination of sweat and powder and skin and perfume, so heady that I could get drunk just by breathing it in.

“Richard… where’s Cody? Whose blood is that out in the hall?”

Her voice sounds hopeful and frightened all at the same time and my stomach flutters a little. How long have I wanted this woman? How many years did I deny myself the pleasure of even admitting that I wanted her? All that wasted time….

“Yeah, Cody. I’m afraid he didn’t make it, honey. Didn’t make the cut, you might say.”

Silence.

I fold the towel carefully and place it back on its little rod.

I feel power surging through my veins like I’ve never known. When you have the ability to decide who live or dies, you become almost like a god. You see the entire world spreading out before you like a veritable buffet where you’re free to pick and choose only the things which most please you.

“Oh my God, Richard, you’re bleeding! There’s blood all over you!”

I hear her feet pattering across the tile and finally turn to face her. She’s more beautiful now than I have ever seen her; her skin so radiant that it almost seems to glow, her hair shiny and flaxen, her breasts jiggling slightly as she runs to me, the hem of her skirt swishing slightly around her ankles. And her shirt. The one she’s wearing now let’s me know it wasn’t all in my imagination. There’s a message there after all.

You Cannot Plow A Field By Turning It Over In Your Mind.

I smile and take her hand. So soft. So delicate and warm.

“The blood’s not mine.” I whisper. “It’s okay.”

I kiss her hand and breathe in the scent of her skin and then kiss again. I feel her arm stiffen and her words become clipped.

“Richard. What are you doing?”

I tighten my grip on her wrist and kiss a little higher up her arm, enjoying the tickle of the almost transparent hairs against my lips.

“It’s okay.” I assure her. “Cody’s out of the way. Jane doesn’t matter. It’s just you and me now, Polly. Just you and me.”

She tries to pull away and I feel her skin twist beneath my grip almost as if I were giving her an Indian burn.

“You’re hurting me! Let go!”

“Sshhhh. Sshhh. Be still pretty, pretty Polly. I’m here now.”

I yank her to me and I see fear reflected in her wide eyes. Or is that excitement?

She begins pummeling my chest with her free hand, scratching at my face, digging deep furrows into my skin.

Let me go!”

So that’s how it is. That little fucking tease. Leading me on. Showing me just enough of her body to arouse my interest. Mocking me. Well, it’s a new world now. A world where I’m free to just take whatever the hell I want. Whenever the hell I want it.

I throw her backward against the kitchen table, forcing her down upon its surface. She’s kicking and squirming and trying to bite at me with her teeth, but this only excites me further and I laugh like a king returning from the royal hunt.

“Richard, no! No, no, NO!”

“Richard’s dead, baby. Call me Rick. Or Dick. You like Dick, don’t you, Polly? Sure you do.”

Her screams echo through the kitchen, so shrill and desperate.

But it makes no difference.

It’s time to claim what has always been rightfully mine.

<p>CHAPTER SEVEN</p>

I’m trying to bunch up her skirt with my free hand while holding her down with the other. Which is a lot harder than I thought it would be. She’s writhing and kicking and squirming like a woman possessed by demons and my right forearm has bloody little teeth prints embedded into the flesh.

“Damn it, lay fucking still!”

I’m trying to twist my arm away from the vicinity of her mouth, trying to make sure she doesn’t get another chunk of my skin clamped between those pearly whites. But she’s wily, this one. She improvises a new strategy and throws her head forward with all her might. Her forehead cracks into my left temple and little flash-bursts of light explode in my vision.

Both hands are free now and she’s got her fingers hooked into claws, going for my eyes as she struggles to get away.

The table creaks and wobbles beneath our bodies and I pull my head back just in time to avoid the gouge she was going for.

With both my hands available however, the skirt becomes less of a problem and it’s quickly pulled up to her waist. Shit… panties. She had to be wearing fucking underwear didn’t she?

I’ve got to take some of the fight out of this feisty bitch. There’s no other choice. I ball my hand into a fist and pull back even with my jaw. A shame to bloody such a pretty face. But she really brought this on herself, didn’t she?

“Get the hell off her you degenerate son of a bitch!”

The voice is shrill and cuts through the struggle so sharply that for a minute I’m not entirely positive where I am. I hear footsteps running toward me and then my leg flares in pain as I roll off the table and fall to the floor. Sticking out of my thigh, I see a familiar black handle and just a hint of metal buried into the meat of my leg. I yank the chef’s knife free and it clangs to the floor as I press my hands against the wound. It feels like it’s throbbing in agony and spurts of blood ooze out in perfect rhythm with my heart.

“You think it’s fun to…”

I roll over onto my side and my assailant is mentally thrown off balance for a second.

“R-Richard? What… what the hell is going on?”

There’s no sign of Polly. She must have cut and run the moment I no longer had her pinned to the table. I stagger to my feet and the pain feels like the muscle is being pulled from my leg fiber by fiber.

Jane stands mere feet away from me, her forehead knotted with confusion as I drag my injured leg across the floor.

Step-scrape.

Step-scrape.

I see uncertainty in her eyes. It’s almost like she’s silently begging for answers, pleading for the world to make sense again.

“I don’t… I don’t understand.”

Step-scrape.

“I know, Janey. Everything’s real confusing right now, darling. It’s probably a lot like the dinosaurs felt when that big ’ole asteroid first pounded into the earth, isn’t it?”

She looks like she’s on the verge of tears, her blue eyes as watery as two pools. This poor woman. She was never cut out for this new world. She could never understand exactly what it will take to survive.

I place my hands on either side of her head, holding her face as if I’m about to lean in for a kiss.

“Was… was that… Polly?

She’s in shock, I think. Probably never expected in a million years to see me. Judging by the pool of blood she picked the knife up from, she probably thought I was dead. Poor, naive thing.

“Yeah, that was Polly.”

I massage her temples with the tips of my fingers, rubbing in slow circles. Her body tenses for a moment, then relaxes as she closes her eyes.

“Did you see where she went, Janey?”

Her eyes snap open and they spark with suspicion. But even so they are still dulled by that lost look. The look that so badly wants answers but is afraid of just what they might be.

“Why?”

“I’ve gotta find her, baby. I’ve gotta clear all this up. It’s all been a big misunderstanding, that’s all. Now where did Polly go, sweetie?”

She opens her mouth and for a moment I think she’s about to speak but then her lips close again. She seems uncertain, like she’s torn between the world she has always believed in and this new reality that has swallowed her up like a tasty morsel.

In the old days, she never would have come into her kitchen and witnessed what she did.

She never would have stabbed her lover of five years in the leg with a knife.

She tries to pull back but I keep her head between my palms, keep rubbing and easing the tension away from her scalp.

“Were you… were you raping her?”

“No, sweetie. No, no, no. I mean, I’m sure that’s probably what it looked like. But that’s all part of the confusion, see? That’s what I’ve got to explain to Polly. You just need to tell me where she went.”

“So, you weren’t… it wasn’t actually…. .”

“God no, Janey. It’s me… Richard. I marched with you remember? I helped out down at the shelter when you were shorthanded. Do you really think I would… do you really think I could do something like that?”

“I… I don’t know.”

She’s really crying now, her cheeks glistening with tears and she squeezes her eyes shut so tightly I can feel wrinkles form beneath the massaging tips of my fingers.

“Janey,” I say softly, evenly, “everything’s all turned upside down right now. Everything’s all crazy. But you gotta tell me where Polly went. It’s dangerous, understand? You tell me where Polly went and I’ll explain everything.”

Jane sniffles and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.

“She… she ran downstairs. She ran outside.”

Jane falls forward and buries her head against my chest. I slowly move my left hand further up her cheek, into the tangles of her curly red hair. My right hand cups her jawline and I continue rubbing, continue working out the tension.

“What the hell is going on, Richard? I don’t understand, I just don’t understand.”

“It’s simple really, Janey.” I whisper as she sobs against my body. “You’re a fucking bitch. And your time has come.”

Before the words truly have a chance to sink in, I twist her head with a savage jerk. I hear the bone snap, feel the pop through my hand, feel the power course through my body again.

She’s out there somewhere. And, by God, I’ll find her.

I will find her and make her mine.

I throw back my head and let loose with a savage cry that strains my vocal chords and sounds more animal than human. It’s the sound of primeval desires crashing up against the trappings of the modern world. It’s the sound of generations of repression and subjugation.

It’s the sound of havoc.

I am the King of this strange new world.

And my Queen is out there.

Waiting for me to claim her.


CHAPTER ONE

<p>CHAPTER ONE</p>

I can see the mob through the window of our fifth story apartment. They scurry across the street like ants that have had their hill trampled beneath the boot of God. Roiling, black smoke rolls from fiery hulks that used to be cars and slinks over the sidewalk like a creeping death, obscuring those who disappear into its veil. I see windows shatter, showers of glass that sparkle like glitter from this distance, people swarming into the buildings and emerging minutes later with clothes piled in their arms, televisions hoisted onto shoulders, and even one guy dragging a mannequin behind him as if it were a prisoner of war. A woman runs up behind a teenager carrying a cardboard box filled with what appears to be looted items; as I watch she extends her arm out straight, leveling the dark object in her hand at the back of his head. There’s a puff of smoke and a little lick of fire and the teenager crumples to the ground as if he were a marionette whose strings had just been cut. The woman dives to the street and begins scooping the toppled items back into the box with both arms, raking in her booty like a greedy pirate. She’s almost filled the box back up when two men pounce upon her, knocking her face first into the concrete. As I watch, one of them buries his knees just below her shoulder blades while the other rips her yellow dress away as easily as if it were made of paper. Yanking her panties down, he quickly drops his trousers and forces his way into her while his partner grabs fistfuls of dark hair and bashes her face again and again into the pavement.

As far as the eye can see, scenes like this play out over and over: murder, rape, destruction, flames burning out of control while people scamper amid the blood and tears….

A helicopter races over the top of our building, flying so low and fast that the thumping of its rotors causes the window to rattle within its pane. Like an armored dragonfly, it darts toward the chaos below. It’s nose dipped low, blades whirring so quickly they simply look like a circular blur, it unleashes a staccato volley of gunfire: bits of concrete erupt like miniature volcanoes as the bullets rip across the streets; those caught in the line of fire jerk and twitch as if dancing to music only they can hear; once their riddled bodies are no longer held aloft by the spray of lead, they collapse in a heap and the bullets search for more partners to pull into its deadly boogie.

Movement on the roof of the Turner Building catches my eye. All at once, I see close to a dozen heads pop up over the side of the ledge. Nearly in unison they raise rifles to their shoulders and sunlight glares on their scopes. They fire repeatedly and the assault has the feel of a coordinated ambush; as if they somehow knew the helicopter would come along eventually. These must be the extremist militia type I’ve heard so much about on the news. Once FEMA declared martial law, they flooded the streets like fleas from a drowning dog, positive that the New World Order had finally decided to snap the neck on the eagle of freedom.

Their bullets ping off the helicopter and it begins to maneuver toward them but suddenly a plume of smoke belches from the tail fin. The machine spirals out of control, spinning in wild circles as it drops from the sky and I see the people on the roof throw up their hands as they jump up and down in victory.

The helicopter smashes into the side of People’s Bank and a giant fireball mushrooms into the sky as the mirrored glass of the building and flaming shards of metal rain down onto the rioters below. Even from this distance I can feel the force of the explosion in my chest, almost like I am being pushed backward by an infinitely strong ghost.

At street level, the trucks have begun rolling in now: drab green with camouflaged tarps pulled tightly over rib-like skeletons. They screech to a halt and soldiers hop out of the back. These trained killers move with fluid grace and precision, their automatic weapons shouldered even before their feet have even touched the ground.

“Richard, darling, why don’t you step away from the window?”

Jane speaks in a sing-song tone that sounds light and carefree. From listening to her, you’d never guess there was a full-fledged battle being waged only blocks away.

I let the drapes fall closed and turn around with images of the chaos still burning in my brain. For a moment, I feel dizzy as two entirely separate worlds collide. Outside, the streets have been darkened with blood and soot. People’s lives are being ripped to shreds and entire buildings burn unchecked in the afternoon sun. But in here, the gunshots seem as if they are coming from the end of some long corridor. They’re muffled and distant, no different really from a neighbor watching an action film with the volume turned up just a little too loudly.

The walls are light beige and are adorned with framed prints of the great masters: Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Dali. My favorite, Munch’s masterpiece The Scream, hangs just above an oak bookcase lined with the works of Shakespeare, Frost, and Melville among others. Everything about the room, from the potted ferns to the beaded curtain that separates the living room from the kitchen, has an almost deliberate look to it: as if it had somehow transcended the glossy pages of a catalog and manifested in the real world.

Jane is sitting on a little brown settee in front of a coffee tabled shaped like the Chinese yin-yang symbol. Her curly red hair is pulled back into a loose ponytail and tied with a yellow ribbon; she’s wearing the shirt I bought her for her birthday last year, the white one with the flowing sleeves that makes her look like some romantic poetess. She smooths her crinkled skirt with one hand and then leans forward to take a sip from a pink mug of herbal tea.

Perched on the couch across from her is her best friend, Polly Wainwright. As usual, Polly is wearing a t-shirt with some sort of slogan on it; this particular one is a simple white tee with pink letters reading Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History. Like all of her clothes it is loose and comfortable, the folds of the fabric seeming to flow as easily as the golden locks of her hair.

“So,” Polly asks as she glances at me with those round, green eyes of hers, “what’s it like out there?”

I’m silent for a moment as I listen to the hiss and gurgle of the cappuccino maker in the kitchen. The strong scent of espresso mingles with sandalwood incense. The stereo in the corner plays so softly that I can’t tell whether it’s a Native American or Japanese flute. But I guess it’s probably Indian: Jane has been heavily into R. Carlos Nakai ever since she ordered from that catalog company and has bought practically every disc the man has ever released.

“Richard,” Jane says, “don’t be rude… Polly asked you a question.”

Should I tell them? Should I describe how I saw a woman raped on the sidewalk, a woman who only seconds earlier had committed cold-blooded murder? Should I tell them how the bodies are beginning to pile upon one another, how our once-peaceful neighbor is beginning to resemble the streets of some war-torn third world country?

I answer, however, without any real thought:

“It’s absolutely modern out there.”

I have no clue what this means. The words just kind of burble out of my mouth before I even really know I’m speaking; as soon as I hear them I feel self-conscious and silly, like an ill-prepared student forced to recite in front of the entire class. I feel my cheeks grow warm and lower my eyes to a throw-rug with the design of a Tibetan mandala. If either woman notices my discomfort, however, they give no indication.

“I know, right?” Jane replies. “It’s sad, the state of things these days. It’s like the whole city has lost its collective mind.”

“The whole city? Try the whole country, dearie. Haven’t you been listening to NPR?”

“Why bother? It’s not like they actually tell you anything.”

Jane’s right. We keep hearing reports of new outbreaks, of violence flaring up as quickly as the flashbulbs that freeze these horrors into snapshots of frozen time for the papers. Riots. Looting. Civil unrest on a scale our country has never known. And yet nobody can tell us why. One expert blames the effects of video games and the media, another on cosmic radiation from last month’s solar activity, while the televangelists claim that we are living through the beginning of the end. But it’s really nothing more than rampant speculation masquerading as news.

The beaded curtains rattle as Cody Preston shoulders his way through the doorway; he’s carrying a tray with four cups of cappuccino carefully balanced on it as if he were a priest bringing sacrament to the masses.

“I say, is anyone thirsty?”

My body immediately stiffens and a sour feeling blossoms in my stomach.

Cody is a tall and lanky man, given to wearing jaunty fedoras and wool scarves over careful layers of pastel. His round spectacles are almost always too far down his nose to serve any real purpose and his goatee looks as if hours have been spent ensuring that it is perfectly symmetrical.

When he speaks, he affects this slightly British accent that causes me to inwardly cringe as if his words were the mental equivalent of fingers on a chalkboard. I know damn well that he’s from some hick town in Kentucky that even cartographers haven’t heard of… but for some reason he insists on speaking as if he’s only a generation or so removed from royalty.

I detest this man, more than anyone else I’ve ever met. Everything about him makes me want to hold a pillow over his face just so I won’t have to suffer another second of his presence. But he’s Polly’s current boyfriend and since Jane and I are something of an item, I — by default — am considered a close, personal friend.

I smile and take the steaming coffee he offers but inside I would like nothing more than to throw it in his smug little face.

My therapist thinks I’m jealous of Cody, which I find to be absolutely absurd. She says, however, that it’s not so much him I’m envious of as what he represents. You see, Ms Cline has this notion that I secretly wish I were with Polly instead of Jane. She claims it would be just as obvious to me if I could manage to put some objective distance between myself and the situation. I, however, think that she’s just grasping at straws and trying to milk as many hours out of me as she possibly can.

I will admit, though, that sometimes Polly does take my breath away. When she laughs, she throws back her head and her neck looks as graceful and soft as the most delicate swan. Her eyes sparkle like diamonds and I imagine her lips to be velvety, like two rose petals passed gently over the skin. And, as long as I am being entirely honest with myself, there have been a few occasions when I’ve had a little too much Merlot and imagined the curves of her breasts pressed against my chest as I made love to Jane. But she is a strong, intelligent, beautiful young woman and I naturally respond to that. As any man would. But it’s nothing more than a fleeting fantasy. Not something I would ever actually act upon. She and I are friends, nothing more and nothing less.

I realize that someone has said something to me and snap my attention back to the here and now with an arch of my eyebrows.

“What was that?”

Jane sighs as if I’d just asked her to perform Cassius’ monologue from Julius Caesar entirely from memory.

“I said, darling, when do you think all of this will settle down?”

I take a sip of my coffee and close my eyes as I relish the bitter flavor of the beans.

“Soon, I hope.” I finally say. “Has to be.”

The other three begin debating cause and effect, each one rehashing sound bites they picked up from one news program or another, always so very careful to disagree without offense. The conversation is peppered with phrases such as What I think you’re failing to take into account is and I can see why you’d feel that way however….

They are so civilized, these friends of mine. So cultured and refined. Especially when you consider that they’re only a little over thirty years or so into life. But they wrap this cultivation around them like personal armor and it almost seems as if nothing real could ever hope to penetrate its barrier.

They sip their coffee.

They deliberate.

Point and counterpoint.

I doubt they even really hear the shots outside: the rapid fire crack of machine guns as the National Guard continues to quell the uprising.

They can’t begin to imagine the blood oozing across the sidewalks and dripping into the gutters as people moan and cry and beg for mercy; people who weren’t willing to give anyone else that same consideration just moments earlier.

Polly and Jane laugh at one of Cody’s stupid little puns and nod at one another knowingly.

It’s absolutely modern out there.

But it’s not. Not really.

It’s more of a savage landscape filled with the most primeval instincts and base desires. It’s evolution in action as the weak are cut from the genetic pool and the strong survive. It’s the worst parts of humanity thrown into sharp focus and illuminated with a spotlight, made to sing and dance to an accompaniment of tears. And I can’t help but wonder where we fit into all this: now that the anarchy is practically beating down our door, how will we fare in this violent, new world?

Will we stay safe and secure behind our locked door and gated apartment complex?

Or will we end up broken and battered like so many others?

Only time will tell, I suppose.

Only time will tell.


CHAPTER TWO

<p>CHAPTER TWO</p>

The clock in the kitchen says 3:15… which means it’s actually only a quarter till. Jane always sets the clocks thirty minutes ahead; the theory being that by doing so she’ll never be late for her book club or a meet-up down at Sacred Grounds. In practice, however, we’re both acutely aware that we actually have half an hour longer than what the clocks report and are consistently scrambling to get out the door on time. Or, at least, we were. These days we don’t leave the apartment much. Technically, as long as it’s daylight we’re allowed to move about the city freely. You may be occasionally stopped by a cop or soldier and required to explain your business while they scrutinize your identification. Sometimes this can happen as many as four times in the course of an hour; but we don’t have to go to work anymore, not unless you’re considered an essential employee for a company that provides a necessary service . Government subsidizing ensures that rent, bills, and mortgages are taken care of and all of our other needs are accounted for as well. In short, they make it as easy as possible to ensure that large groups of people won’t congregate in a single area without there being some sort of military presence at the ready. Which is fine by me. Since the trouble began, I always feel so damn exposed whenever I’m outside the safety of our four walls; I watch everyone who passes by like I would a snake that may or may not be venomous. I wonder if they are really sizing me up, if they’re taking into account my jacket or shoes, wondering if it would be worth the trouble…. Or perhaps they simply feel the same nervous fluttering in their stomachs that I do. Maybe they’re taking their own personal inventory and trying to decide if it would be better to fight or run if I should suddenly turn on them.

I hold my head in my hands and try to will sleep to come.

I listen to the clock tick and the soft humming of the refrigerator.

At least Polly and Cody aren’t at each other anymore. For the past forty minutes or so I could hear them through the thin walls of the guest bedroom: the creaking of bedsprings, the headboard tapping gently against the plaster like erotic Morse code, muffled moans and proclamations of undying love. At first my mind was filled with images of Cody humping away at her like a Chihuahua pumped up on Viagra. The thought of his pimply ass cheeks grinding against one another while his face contorted into some ridiculous sex mask was enough to literally make me ill. I felt like everything I had eaten throughout the day had soured in my stomach, as if rather than breaking down the food it had turned into an incubator for bacteria and disease. Bile stung the back of my throat and I tried to shift my focus, to pretend that it was simply Polly in the other room and the sounds I were hearing were nothing more than her exploring the secrets of her own body. I pictured her sprawled across the bed, alone in the dark, her hair fanned out across the pillow as a sheen of sweat glistened on her pale skin. I could almost feel the warmth of her breath as she parted her lips slightly, could almost smell the musky aroma of her sex flooding the room with that unmistakable scent.

But then, sharply and quite clearly, I heard her call out his name again and again as the rapping of the headboard became more frantic and insistent. The erection that had been straining against my boxers and begging for release melted as quickly as if it had been dipped in ice water. Every nerve in my body suddenly felt as if it had been set on edge and I slipped out of bed and stormed into the kitchen, hoping that maybe I could find a bit of peace and quiet.

And now that I had, the events of the day kept replaying in my mind like news footage. The riot on the street. The explosion as the helicopter took out the entire side of the bank. Later, once the sounds of fighting had faded into memory, the fire trucks dutifully showed up to hose the blood and ashes into the gutters while men in what looked to be white, paper uniforms threw the dead into the backs of flatbed trucks. Hours after that the knock on the door: three soldiers, two with their weapons trained on me as the third scrawled information onto a clipboard he carried.

Only two adults in the household?

No, four. Our friends are staying with us. Their house was firebombed when the trouble went down near Brixton.

Names?

Polly Wainwright. Cody Preston.

Any children?

Thank God, no.

Are there any weapons in the house, sir? Any firearms, explosive devices, or blades greater than eight inches in length?

No… no, nothing like that at all.

Jane’s voice calling out from somewhere behind me: We don’t believe in guns. We’re all pacifists, you know.

Pacifists or not, I’m still required to verify the information you’ve provided. Step aside, please.

Before the soldiers left, the one with the clipboard filled out a ration card that was no bigger than a driver’s license and added his signature to the bottom. He handed it to me, remaining expressionless as his eyes took one final glance around the room.

Supply trucks will be at the corner of Bentley and Jefferson tomorrow at oh-ten-hundred hours. Do not fold, bend, spindle, or mutilate this card. Failure to present the card, or if it has been damaged in any way, will result in a denial of rations. Furthermore, any attempts to alter the information contained on it in any way will be punishable to the fullest extent of the law.

Once the soldiers had moved on to the next apartment, Jane suggested that Cody and I should go together the next morning to pick up the supplies. She said it would do us both some good to get out of the house for a while, to take in some fresh air, and to have some “man time”.

Cody’s face had drained of all color and his eyes had the expression of a squirrel who was trapped on the median of a busy highway. He stammered like a damn fool and, even though his words were saying the exact opposite, I knew that he didn’t want to go with me any more than I wanted him there.

“Look,” I finally explained, “what happens if trouble breaks out while we’re gone? I think one of us should stay with you girls. I’ll go get the supplies and be back in no time flat.”

“He’s right you know. He’s got a point. I should stay here. I really should.”

The damn coward. But at least I would have a little time away from the simpering idiot the next day. I swear, twenty-four more hours of listening to that fake accent and I’ll be ready to pitch him off the balcony.

I hear the floorboards in the living room creak and soft, shuffling footsteps. I swear to God, that better not be Cody. I don’t think I could handle that right now.

The beaded curtain parts and it feels as if my entire body has sighed in relief: it’s Polly.

She doesn’t notice me sitting there at first. She’s wearing this long t-shirt that comes down just below her thighs. It’s light gray and, because my eyes have adapted to sitting in the dark for so long, I can make out one of those little fishes that True Believers like to put on their cars. What Jane refers to as “Jesus Fish”. Only this one has little legs attached to it and the name Darwin written in the very center. Surrounding the symbol, in large block letters, are the words EVOLVE OR DIE. Her hair looks as if she’s rubbed a balloon all over it and used the static charge to make it jut out in little tufts; her cheeks are flushed and the subtle scent of dried sweat follows her into the room like a faithful dog at its master’s feet.

She shambles over to the fridge and throws open the door, blinding me for a moment with the unexpected light. I cup my hand over my brow, shielding my eyes from the stinging glare, and blink away the needles of pain.

Polly bends over to dig around on the bottom shelf and the hem of her shirt raises to the small of her back. She’s not wearing any underwear and I see these two perfect ass cheeks staring back at me: tight and firm from hours spent at the gym, little twin dimples on either side. My pulse quickens and I look away as she pulls a bottled water from the shelf and closes the door.

“Oh hey,” she seems unsure of her words and begins to fidget slightly, tugging at the bottom of her shirt as if she could stretch it a little lower, “I didn’t, uh, see you there, Richard. Umm… can’t sleep?”

I glance back at her and try to keep my voice from betraying the little quiver that vibrates somewhere between my heart and gut.

“Yeah. Keep thinking about everything that happened today. It’s crazy.”

“Tell me about it.”

She sounds relieved, as if she were perhaps expecting me to say something about the noise of her lovemaking. Perhaps to buy a few seconds time, she twists off the lid of the bottle and takes a swig; I try not to stare as her throat moves slightly while she swallows.

Wiping her lips with the back of her hand, she makes her way to the table and pulls up a chair across from me. So close now that I can smell the faint hint of her perfume, like wildflowers after a spring rain; but there’s also the slight smell of passion still clinging to her like a needy lover.

Cody had left an empty yogurt cup on the table and she pulls it to her; for the first time, I notice the pack of cigarettes in her other hand. Flipping open the top of the box, she slides out a lighter and a smoke.

“You know,” I warn, “Jane will have your head if she catches you smoking that in here.”

Polly shrugs and flicks the lighter in the semi-darkness. She holds the flame to the tip and puffs slowly. Half closing her eyes, she blows out the smoke through pursed lips, a long slow plume that hangs in the air like a bluish nebula in the depths of space.

“Yeah, well what Jane doesn’t know won’t hurt her, right?”

Polly winks at me and I feel as if my heart has forgotten to beat as my breath catches in my throat. Is she talking about smoking? Or something else? Something more?

“Uh, yeah… I guess. I mean, I won’t tell her or anything.”

She takes another drag off the cigarette and the ember glows like a meteor just before it begins to burn up in the atmosphere. The apartment is so quiet that I can hear the tobacco crackle slightly as she inhales and I wonder if she can hear the way my heart is pounding in my chest….

“So what do you make of all this, Richard?” she finally asks. “Every time we talk about it, you kinda clam up. I mean, you take part in the conversation, don’t get me wrong. But you never really share your thoughts, you know?”

I lean back in my chair and look up at the ceiling for what seems to be an eternity before committing myself to an answer.

“The way I see it, people just don’t give a damn any more. I mean, it would be easy if we could blame this on some kind of disease. Some virus or something. At least then it would kind of make sense.”

Polly nods her head as she flicks her ashes into the yogurt cup. But she stays silent, letting me talk. If I’d been having this conversation with Jane right now, you can bet she would’ve already had some little counter to what I’d said. Maybe something along the lines of not enough research being done to entirely discount a viral theory. But Polly, God bless her, was content to simply listen and smoke. Which was good. It gave me a chance to actually sort out and piece together the scattered thoughts that had been going through my mind over the last several weeks. To try to form some kind of coherent reasoning.

“But this? This is scarier. A disease can be cured. An infection can be stopped.”

“So, if not a disease… then what?”

I reach across the table and pull her pack of cigarettes toward me. She raises her eyebrows but doesn’t really say anything as I fish one out and light up my own. The smoke feels scratchy in my throat and my eyes immediately start to water. But God, it feels good… like running into an old lover who you haven’t thought of in years only to find that old spark still exists.

“You want to know what I really think?”

I feel slightly woozy from the nicotine. Or maybe from Polly’s scent, so maddeningly close. Or maybe both.

“What I think is that civilization is this really fragile thing. I mean, we have laws that were designed to protect us. But the only reason those laws work is because the majority of people want to be good. They want to have order. They choose to obey… and that’s what makes our society function.”

“Well, you got to keep in mind that if you break those laws you go to jail, Richard. Fear of losing freedom… that’s a pretty strong incentive, isn’t it?”

Her voice sounds husky and soft, like a starlet from some old film noir movie. I take another draw from my cigarette and hold the smoke in, using it as an excuse to simply admire her for a moment without needing to continue the conversation. She really is beautifu those high cheeks bones, that perfect nose, the creases in her brow….

“Not really.” I finally say. “I mean, let’s face it. There’s a lot more normal people than there are cops and soldiers. If everyone decided, all at the same time, to simply do whatever the hell they wanted there really wouldn’t be anything the authorities could do about it.”

Polly narrows her eyes and chews on her bottom lip for a moment as she thinks over what I’d said. For the first time, I see a hint of fear touch her eyes. As if she’d finally realized that this was something more than just an intellectual exercise.

“And you think that’s what’s happening? That people are just… well, just giving up on society?”

“It’s the only thing that makes any sense. At least, to me. And that, my dear, is precisely why I can’t get to sleep tonight. In a nutshell.”

Polly glances over her shoulder, almost as if she’s afraid that some shadow might be sneaking up behind her. She rubs her arms briskly and even in the darkness of the kitchen I can see the goose bumps creeping along her soft flesh.

I know that I’ve been laying it on a bit thick, spacing out my words with dramatic pauses and speaking in tones normally reserved for melodramatic b-films. But, to be perfectly honest, there’s kind of a small thrill in knowing that you’ve entirely captivated a beautiful woman. Knowing that a seed of fear has been planted and that maybe, just maybe, somewhere deep in the back of her mind she is seeing you as a potential hero. Someone who’ll protect her and make sure that nothing bad ever darkens her doorstep.

“If you’re right… and I’m not saying you are, mind you… but if you are then there’s really no hope, is there?”

“Honey, I don’t think there’s been any hope for a long, long time. And that’s precisely why we find ourselves in this current predicament.”


CHAPTER THREE

<p>CHAPTER THREE</p>

The smell of smoke still hangs heavy in the air, thick and greasy, like the ghost of a refinery explosion. I wonder to myself how long it will take for that particular stink to dissipate, for the air to simply smell normal again? Even the warm breeze that blows across the streets doesn’t do much to help scatter the stench. Instead, it’s almost as if the wind is scooping it up from the burnt out shells of buildings, carrying it down alleys and throughways, and depositing it into a cloud that hangs just over our heads.

Stay within the yellow lines….

The voice from the loudspeaker sounds as emotionless and cold as a computer. Hell, for all I know it could actually be one. After all, I can’t really see a microphone or anyone speaking the words. Just these drab green cones attached to every tenth telephone pole, a thin black wire stringing them together and disappearing somewhere into the distance.

Anyone straying from the yellow lines will be dealt with immediately.

Soldiers stroll up and down the sidewalks, machine guns slung over their shoulders as their eyes scan the crowd for even the slightest ripple of discontent. A few look scared, as if they’re afraid the assemblage will suddenly fall upon them and rip the weapons from their hands before they’ve even managed to squeeze off a shot; but most of them all wear the same solemn, tight lipped expression of neutrality.

The use of deadly force has been authorized. I repeat… the use of deadly force has been authorized.

I’ve been standing in line for nearly an hour now and have only moved forward a block or so. My kidneys feel as if someone is plunging knives into them and my bladder is demanding relief as I curse myself for not having the foresight to take a leak before leaving the house.

Please have your ration card and identification at the ready. Keep the line moving in an orderly fashion.

By now I know the spiel well enough that I could recite it word for word, pausing in all the right places for just the right amount of time. Which is really no mean feat: it’s basically the same message, after all, repeated over and over as we shuffle forward.

Do not attempt to make contact with the soldiers protecting you.

Protecting. That’s a good one. It feels more like they’re herding us. It’s all too easy to imagine that this long string of people are nothing more than livestock. That once we round the corner we’ll have little tags affixed to our ears and be loaded into cattle cars. Shipped off to slaughterhouses and processed for consumption.

Do not attempt to make contact with those in front of or behind you.

Christ Almighty, I should have gotten more sleep last night. Everything looks grainy and my eyes feel as if I’ve got little pieces of grit trapped in them. Grit that scratches and itches and burns.

Stay within the yellow lines….

It’s Polly’s fault, really. She kept me talking in the kitchen, kept asking all those questions about what I thought, how I felt, what my opinion was on this or that: and every so often she’d drop her cigarette and bend over to pick it up. The neckline of her shirt would sag and I could see nipples like little pencil erasers on these firm, round breasts. The first time it happened I thought maybe it was just an accident, that she’d simply grown comfortable enough around me to not realize how she was exposing herself; the second time, however, I began to wonder if maybe she were doing it on purpose. If she wanted me to see those beautiful mounds of flesh. So I kept finding reasons to stay up longer, new topics to discuss with her. All in the hopes of seeing if she would drop another cigarette. Or the lighter. Or the lid to her water bottle.

Anyone straying from the yellow lines will be dealt with immediately.

I ended up with around two hours of sleep, I’d say. Not nearly enough. I feel like every muscle in my body is wound up as tightly as a spring; I’m tired, cranky, and I really, really have to piss. But, as I’m so often reminded, I’m not allowed to ask the soldiers if there’s any way I can use the bathroom. I’m not even allowed to step outside the damn yellow line.

The use of deadly force has been authorized. I repeat…

Yeah, yeah, I know: the use of deadly force has been authorized. But to be perfectly honest I would almost be willing to take a bullet right now as long as it pierced my bladder and relieved some of this fucking pressure. Next time, Cody comes for the supplies. Let that little weasel deal with this shit while I stay home, all snug and secure with a bathroom only feet away.

Please have your ration card and identification at the ready. Keep the line moving in an orderly fashion.

Do not attempt to make contact with the soldiers protecting you.

Do not attempt to make contact with those in front of or behind you.

Stay within the yellow lines….


By the time I’d made it to the little tent with the desk beneath, it was too late. I simply couldn’t hold out any longer. Warmth spread across the crotch of my jeans and trickled down my thighs as the sharp stench of urine filled the air like a pungent cloud. Luckily, I’d worn dark jeans so it wasn’t obvious where the source of the smell was coming from. It could have been the old man in front of me. Or the lady who kept stepping on the heel of my shoe every time we managed to take a few steps forward.

“Ration card and identification.”

I handed the soldier the requested documents and noticed that his nose wrinkled slightly, as if the smell of my piss stung his nostrils. Good. Served the bastard right.

He glanced from my ID to my face and then back to the ID again.

“Richard W. Hall?”

I’d nodded my head, unclear as to whether answering his questions would be considered making contact with one of the soldiers protecting me.

He sighed as if he had been through this same routine a thousand times and in that fraction of a second I realized that this man hated his job. And, for some reason, I gleaned a bit of satisfaction from that realization; as if this somehow knocked him down to the same level as me and the long line of people stretching back and around the corner.

“You’re going to have to speak to answer my questions. It’s okay, understand? It’s okay to talk to me. Now… what’s your address and social security number, Mr. Hall?”

Amazing. Even when things are literally falling apart around you, the bureaucracy rolls on and on.

After verifying all of my information to the man’s satisfaction, another soldier pulled a large box from the back of a truck and dropped it into my arms. The thing felt as heavy as a small child and I was assured that there was enough inside to last a full week if we doled it out wisely; another officer would be around in the future to issue a new ration card and I, or someone else residing in my household, could come back next week at the same time and location to claim further supplies.

As I staggered along the streets, I began to feel eyes upon me. I could sense the other people looking at my box of food and necessities, could almost feel their desire to possess it like a beam of warmth penetrating my skull. Even though my back ached from carting this huge box around, I tried to rise to my full height, to puff my chest out in the hopes that it might be mistaken for muscle. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think I could be considered in any way, shape, or form to be weak. A little out of shape maybe. Forty hours of pushing a mouse around every week for the last seven years will do that to a man. Your belly ends up getting a little rounder and you lose some of the tone that used to make your biceps as taut as piano wires. But out here on the streets, where violence could break out as easily as you might sneeze, every little advantage helped. So if there was any way I could make it seem like there might be an easier target then, by God, I was going to take it.

Still, I didn’t like being out in the open. I kept thinking that I heard someone’s footsteps running up behind me, imaging someone’s breath on the back of my neck, mistaking my own shadow for someone else’s. Every few seconds I stole a glance over my shoulder and felt a little of the tension in my shoulders release when I realized that the other people were still just standing on the sidewalk or were ducking into their own houses and apartments. So I continued walking. But within a few minutes I wondered: is that the echo of my own footsteps bouncing off the buildings? Or someone else’s? Someone trying to mirror my pace, to disguise the sound of their approach beneath my own little noises? And then the entire scene would replay itself like a bad loop film.

So that’s why I’m standing here now, glancing back and forth from the street ahead to the little alley to my left. The street has the advantage of being patrolled by police and soldiers; but there’s still no guarantee that I won’t be attacked. When the violence flares, the people taking part in it are like a packs of wild dogs. They pounce upon the victim with speed and cunning, their ferocity and the element of surprise helping to isolate their prey even further. I’ve seen this time and time again on news broadcasts and reality cop shows. One moment it’s just like any other day. Everything is quiet, life goes on as it always has. Next thing you know, a mob of people explode in a flurry of aggression, flailing with fists and feet and teeth and nails. If it’s not put down quickly, it grows like a force of nature… like a whirlwind that sucks people into its vortex… and suddenly the entire street is filled with screams and breaking glass and the blood begins to flow long before the first sirens ever start to respond.

But if I cut down the alley there’s less chance of being seen. Fewer people to covet my box of goodies. And, if I’m not mistaken, I can actually network through these alleys and probably cut a good ten minutes off the trip back home. So that settles it: the less time I’m out here in the streets the better.

The alley smells like rotten vegetables and is lined with overflowing dumpsters. It’s been close to a week and a half since I’ve seen a garbage truck in this town and trash is starting to pile up everywhere. When the dumpsters can’t hold any more litter, people just start piling the bags up around them. Stray dogs and rats come along, shred the thin plastic with their claws and teeth, strew refuse all over the place, and make a damn mess out of everything. On top of this, the bricks walls are covered with graffiti, loops and swirls of some cryptic alphabet that I can never hope to comprehend, and I start to wonder how I’ll explain the sour stench of urine wafting from my pants once I get home? Can I really tell Polly and Jane that I stood in line for so long that I pissed myself? That I reverted into nothing more than a small child who couldn’t control even the simplest of body functions?

In a word, this sucks. It feels like I’m the one being punished while the rest of the world just does whatever the hell they want, takes whatever the hell they want whenever the hell they want it. All my life I’ve tried to play by the rules. I graduated high school, got my college diploma and netted a cushy little office job. I met a nice girl, resisted the temptations of other — sometimes prettier — girls and would probably end up proposing to her within a year or so. I wore the right clothes, went to all the right hot spots, read the right books, and listened to the right music. And yet, somehow, life was still a constant struggle. There was never enough money to last from one paycheck to the next, the bills always required juggling, and every time it seemed like a little extra money had come my way some problem or another would rear its ugly head and require even more cash than what I had on hand. But I kept on with the charade so that my friends would never suspect how precariously I was balanced on the tightrope of finances. I kept on pretending everything was fine while those damn hooligans ran free through the cities, satisfying their hearts’ every desire, their every whim. I guarantee none of them smell like piss because they spent the better part of the day waiting in line for a friggin’ handout.

Listen to me. I sound like a spoiled child who can’t have that shiny, new toy. I need to get home, get some sleep. Or at least a nice hot cup of coffee if nothing else.

I round the corner and find myself in a new stretch of alley. Up ahead, there’s an old man and he seems to be struggling with his own box. It’s smaller than mine, probably only enough for one or two people, but his arms are so frail and his back so bent that I’m sure it feels twice as heavy to him.

Poor old guy. If the world is this confusing to me, how must it be for him?

He takes these tiny Geisha-girl steps and I wonder how long it’s taken him to make it this far? For every step he takes, I cover three times the distance. He’s now so close that I can see the liver spots on the back of his head, the wrinkles creasing his neck, and the way his pants seem to be slowly sliding down his hips as if his belt isn’t quite tight enough. I don’t know whether he’s deaf or trusting, but he never looks over his shoulder to see who’s coming up behind him. Not even when I clear my throat in an attempt to announce my presence.

But why am I feeling sorry for him? He’s had a long life, this old timer. I’m sure he’s seen his share of hardships, but he won’t have to suffer through the madness that’s gripped this country much longer. By the looks of him, he’s only got six months to a year of life left in him. Tops. He’ll probably die peacefully in his sleep while I stand in line for another fucking supply box, reeking of piss again. If, that is, there’s even still any supplies to go around. By then the whole world could have gone tits up. And I’m not being dramatic. I really think that’s a possibility. The violence grows worse with each passing week. The outbreaks happen more frequently, involve more people. And, as the militia members who brought down the helicopter yesterday prove, in some ways they’re getting more organized. Six months from now I might consider myself lucky to have a little box like his. I’ll be starving and suffering and he’ll be laying peacefully within his grave with not a care in the world.

I’m just behind him now and I can smell Ben-Gay waft off his body like it was damn cologne. And he still doesn’t have a clue I’m there.

Or maybe he just doesn’t care anymore. Maybe he’s resigned to the fact that he’ll die in this alley. Is that why he took it to begin with? An act of voluntary euthanasia, perhaps? Seems to me he would have felt safer in plain view of the police and soldiers. Not back here in this alley where no one would hear him scream.

For some reason, I think of the soldier at the little tent who took all my information before gracing me with this box I’m lugging around. What was that he said? That this would be enough to last a week… if we doled it out wisely? What the hell did that mean anyway? What if we didn’t dole it out wisely? Was it too much of a stretch of imagination to think that might be a possibility? I mean, it’s not like anyone give me any instructions with this damn box. No one said only eat x amount of food every x amount of hours and you’ll be fine. No, I was just given what feels like a container of bricks and basically told to make it last.

And this old man? There’s a good chance that he could drop dead of a heart attack at any minute, the way he’s straining with that box of his. I can see the muscles and veins standing out on his neck, can now see how his arms tremble beneath the weight, and can hear his wheezing breath. Even if he does manage to make it back to his home, what happens if he dies tonight? All that food just sitting around in his pantry while flies lay eggs in his eyes… all that food going to waste.

I realize I’m holding my own box directly over my head and my own muscles are quivering with exertion. For a moment, I’m confused: why the hell am I walking like this? What the hell am I doing?

Then, without another thought, I’m bringing my arms down with as much force as I can muster. The edge of my box slams into the back of the old man’s head and I see a bright red spray of blood spurt from his scalp as his body pitches forward. His box skids across the alley and he’s sprawled on his belly, feeling the back of his head with hands that came away warm and sticky with his own blood.

He rolls over and his eyes are wide with fear, magnified and distorted by the thick lenses of his glasses. He lips move like he’s searching for words but no sound escapes from his frail throat.

I feel like I’m about to throw up. What the fuck have I done? Why did I do that? What the hell was I thinking?

Tears well up in the corners of the old guy’s eyes as he starts scrambling backward and I see his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as he struggles for a breath.

Shit. He’s going to start screaming. Start yelling for help.

What if someone hears him?

What if a soldier or cop is patrolling the other end of the alley?

They’ll kill me. Shoot me dead on the spot, no questions asked.

The man’s lips quiver and I know the scream is working its way up through his lungs.

I can’t let him scream.

I don’t want to die.

I don’t want to be killed in a dirty fucking alley with pants that smell of piss.

I don’t want to die.

My box thumps to the ground as I launch myself at the old man. My body crashes into his and I feel the air whoosh from his lungs with a small moan as my knee grinds into his groin. He falls backward again and his throat is in my hands and it feels so thin and fragile, like a chicken bone really. Squeezing, compressing so tightly that my knuckles turn white and my hands throb with pain.

His eyes bulge as if I’m about to pop them right out of his head and his lips look kind of bluish now and I squeeze harder, feeling the vibration of bones cracking through my palms. Blood begins to trickle from the corners of his mouth and suddenly he’s not struggling anymore, not clawing at my hands and clothes with arthritic fingers. His arms hang limply by his sides and his eyes look dull and glassy. But I have to make sure… I can’t risk him telling the authorities what happened, can’t take the chance that even a single breath might be hiding down there in his lungs. So I squeeze his throat until I’m sure there’s no chance he’ll ever get back up again.

I look over my shoulder, half expecting to see someone running down the alley toward me. But there’s no one in either direction. No witnesses to what I’ve just done.

Standing, I brush the dust off my pants and shirt. It doesn’t seem right to just leave the old guy laying out in the alley like this…. I toss some of the bags out of one of the dumpsters, just enough so that I can hoist his body over the side and bury him beneath the mounds of garbage. This whole place smells like rot, anyway. No one will ever notice. No one will wonder what that strange smell is as his body begins to decay.

I grab my box off the ground and then stoop and place the old man’s supplies on top of it.

My heart is hammering in my chest faster than I ever thought possible and every sound, every sight, every smell seems to be somehow amplified. It’s like all of my senses have kicked into overdrive and for the first time in my life I actually feel powerful. Invincible, even.

And these extra supplies? Well, they’ll make sure we have enough to see us through regardless of whether or not we dole them out wisely.

We’ll be just fine, us four.

I’ll make sure of that.


CHAPTER FOUR

<p>CHAPTER FOUR</p>

I’m standing in the hallway of our building and it feels like every ounce of energy I’ve ever possessed has decided to take an extended hiatus. The muscles in my legs tremble like Jell-O and my arms are wracked with cramps from carrying the boxes; the small of my back feels like I’ve been whacked with a two-by-four and waves of darkness keep threatening to overtake me. I shake my head like a dog flinging off water and kick the door with the tip of my loafer.

“It’s me… open up. I’ve got the stuff.”

My voice sounds slurred and distant, like a drunkard speaking through the end of a long pipe.

Nothing but silence within the apartment, so I kick again. Harder this time.

“Damn it, open the door! This shit is heavy!”

I can hear faint footsteps on the other side, whispers so vague I can only make out sounds and not voices or distinct words. I kick again, this time so hard that pain flares through my toes as the tip of my shoe jars against the wood.

“Who’s there?”

Jane’s voice, sounding like a frightened little girl. Why the hell doesn’t she just use the peephole and see who the fuck is there? The stupid cunt.

I try to swallow my irritation, to keep it from showing in my voice and tone. It feels like a hard lump of gristle stuck in my throat and I close my eyes for a second to keep the hallway from wavering in and out of focus.

“Publisher’s Fucking Clearing House. Who the hell do you think it is? Open the damn door, Jane. I said this shit is heavy!”

So much for keeping my cool.

I hear the chain rattle and then the click of the deadbolt. The doorknob turns and the door swings open. She stands there for a moment with her hands on her hips, her lips thin and tight as she glares at me.

“There’s no need to get snappy.” she spits. “It could’ve been anyone. How was I supposed to know?”

Apparently she has no intention of moving out of the doorway, so I shoulder my way by her.

Richard!

Staggering into the living room, I see Polly and Cody. They stand there watching me like I was the lead character in private drama playing out just for them. Jane slams the door shut and stomps across the room.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into you! You didn’t have to push me.”

No one offers to help. No one makes a move at all. Except for Jane and she’s too busy pacing around the living room and wagging her finger while she prattles on and on about how she won’t tolerate domestic violence in any way shape or form. Please. All I did was let myself into my own home. Is it my fault that she wouldn’t get out of the way?

Fuck ’em. I made it this far on my own. I guess a few more steps to the kitchen won’t really matter.

Cody is standing by the coffee table and he’s looking at me like I’m some kind of trained monkey. One who might be dangerous or perhaps just mildly amusing. As I pass the worthless twit, he sniffs several times and wrinkles his nose as he begins fanning his hand in front of his face.

“My God, man, you smell like an outhouse.”

All the frustration of the morning bubbles over like an unattended kettle. I slam the boxes of supplies down onto the coffee table, throw them really, and there’s a sharp crack as the cheap wood gives out. The yin-yang design splinters into half a dozen pieces as coffee mugs and saucers crash to the ground.

“Well maybe next time, you’d like to go get the fuckin’ supplies! Maybe you’d like to waste half your day being told that if you step outside the precious yellow line you’ll end up with a damn bullet in your head! Son of bitch!”

I’m all up in his face, spraying spittle with each word and Cody’s trying to back away but I’ve got the lapels of his shirt in a vice-like grip. His eyes dart about the room and he winces with each word.

They would have shot me! DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?”

I feel hands pulling me backward, yanking me away as my name is repeated again and again; but as quickly as the anger flared up, it’s gone and I’m simply tired, scared, and frustrated beyond belief. I let his shirt slip through my fingers as the girls pull me away and then fall to my knees in the center of the floor.

“They would have shot me.”

My voice is small and weak now and the tears start streaming down my face. My body hitches with sobs and snot bubbles from my nose and I smell like piss and there’s an old man lying in a dumpster somewhere with the rats and maggots and trash. And all I can do is rock back and forth, repeating over and over: stay within the yellow lines, stay within the yellow lines….

I wake up on the couch with an afghan thrown across me and a bolster pillow beneath my head. Every muscle in my body is sore and I’ve got a headache that feels like there’s a cluster of fingertips pressing behind my left eye. It’s dark outside now and I can hear the others in the kitchen.

“Zax is not a word, Cody.”

“It is too, Jane. Check the dictionary. It’s a tool commonly used in slate roofing. It’s also a triple-letter score. Which, if I’m not mistaken puts me in the lead.”

“Hey there, sleepyhead.”

It’s Polly’s voice. She’s leaning in the doorway that leads down the hall, a half grin across her face.

“How you feeling?”

This evening she’s in jeans and a t-shirt that says Life Begins At The End Of Your Comfort Zone. Her left arm jingles with bangles and it might be just my imagination but I think there’s something different in the way she’s looking at me. Almost like she’s truly seeing me for the first time.

“Better.” I mumble as I sit up. “Sore.”

“You kind of freaked everyone out a bit earlier. At first Jane was pretty pissed, but when you started crying… well, none of us really knew what to do, you know?”

We look at each other from across the room and I pull the cover tightly around me as I take a slow breath through my nose. Polly takes a few steps and her voice drops to a near whisper.

“It was bad out there, wasn’t it?”

I nod silently.

“There was blood on your shirt when we started taking your clothes off for you. After you passed out. Or fell asleep. Or whatever that was.”

I close my eyes and can clearly see the box coming down on the back of the old man’s head.

“It wasn’t yours, was it?”

I shake my head slowly.

“You need to talk about it?”

I shake my head again.

“How ’bout coffee? Nothing fancy. Just straight-up old fashioned black coffee?”

I nod and she leans forward and kisses my forehead. She smells so clean and fresh, so lovely.

“I’ll be right back, okay? You just stay right here.”

Someone has cleaned up the mess I made. Hard to believe that the coffee table I shelled out so much for shattered so damn easily. I really liked that table, too. It’s a shame, really.

I hear whispering from the kitchen now. No more arguments over words and tiles and scores; and I’m sure I’m the big topic of discussion. Crazy Richard.

The funny thing, though, is I don’t really regret it. Killing the old man, I mean. We needed those supplies worse than he did. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. Let’s face it, the writing’s on the wall and it’s a lot easier to read than that gang graffiti in the alley . The military don’t threaten to shoot civilians for simply stepping out of line. Not unless the shit’s about to really hit the fan. An old guy like him? He’d never be able to survive what’s coming down the pike. The young, the old, the sick, and frail… they’ll all fall flat on their faces into a river of blood while the strong use their bodies as stepping stones.

Yesterday, I probably would have been among those who couldn’t bear the weight and responsibility of survival. But I’m a different man than the one who walked out that door with his little ration card in one hand and his worries in the other. Sure… I’m still afraid. Change is always scary and I’d be a fool not to be a little wary. But there’s a difference between a healthy fear and paralyzing terror. And I know now that I can do whatever it takes to survive.

Change is good….

I’m lying in bed with Jane and she’s flipping through the pages of a magazine. We haven’t said a word to each other for nearly the past hour, but it’s not an angry silence. It’s more like we’ve simply ran out of things to say. She’s content to be lost in her world of gossip and fashion and I pretend to be engrossed in whatever book this is in my hands. But I’m really thinking about Polly. To be extremely specific, I’m thinking about Polly and her t-shirts.

I’ve never really been one to believe in all that mystical mumbo-jumbo. The way I see it, most of it can simply be explained away by the power of suggestion and the weakness of the human mind. The need to believe in something greater. That there’s some Master Plan behind this shipwreck we call life and we’re not all just bobbing along on our lifeboats and hoping to be saved. But now I’m starting to wonder.

See, I’m noticing patterns here. Patterns which seem to be a bit more than mere coincidence.

The night that the streets outside exploded with violence. What was it her shirt said that evening? Well behaved women rarely make history. Yeah, that was it. And we’re living through history right now, aren’t we? Things are changing out there and I get the feeling that the momentum has built too rapidly for anyone to ever dream of stopping it now. The military and police, the people in authority… they’re just going through the motions, trying to maintain an illusion of control for as long as humanly possible. So yeah, this is history in the making. And the well behaved women? Well, let’s just say they won’t fare well in all of this. It will be the wildcats who come out on top, the ones who aren’t afraid to make their own rules, to get their hands a little dirty, to fight and struggle and claw their way back up to the top of the food chain. Is Jane that type of woman?

I glance over at her. She’s just scratched some perfume sample and has lifted the page to her nose; she smiles with a tilt of her head and rubs the page on the sides of her neck before turning the page.

No, I don’t think so. Poor little Janey will be numbered among the faceless dead, I’m afraid.

But what about Polly? Hard to say there. She’s a tough one to read. Maybe so. If I’m right about this t-shirt theory of mine, that is.

That night, when we were smoking and talking in the kitchen, I had this idea in the back of my mind that I’d only hinted at. I’d mentioned the changes I saw going down, and put forth the same premise I was just thinking about… more or less. The weak will perish and the strong will survive.

Her shirt at that time was the one that said Evolve or Die.

And after everything that happened, after the supply line, after the old man and the dumpster, after smashing the coffee table into unrecognizable bits; after all that, what’s the first thing I see when I open my eyes? Polly. In a shirt reading Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. Well, I stepped way the hell out of mine didn’t I? And in those moments after I’d killed the old man, when the adrenaline was still coursing through my veins and my senses were more keenly acute than they have ever been… in those moments, for the first time, I truly felt alive. I knew what it meant to be the hunter, the provider, the alpha dog of the pack. And I liked it. I really liked it.

So, here’s the question: are Polly’s shirts messages from some higher power? Are they meant to guide me along this strange, new path I’ve found myself on? Or is it more secular than that? Is she specifically choosing these shirts? Is she the one speaking to me in a type of clothing code, telling me all the things she can’t really vocalize in front of the others?

I’ll have to pay closer attention. Which, to be perfectly honest, shouldn’t be too big of a challenge. After all, it’s a perfect excuse to look at her chest.

There’s a soft knock on the door and Cody pokes his head through. What the hell does he want?

“Hey, guys” his tone is soft and apologetic, the voice of fodder, “sorry to interrupt but we thought you might want to see this.”

He’s quiet for a second as he swallows hard and tries not to make eye contact.

“The White House.” he finally says. “It’s on fire.”


CHAPTER FIVE

<p>CHAPTER FIVE</p>

Cody, as it turns out, is a master of the understatement. It wasn’t just the White House that’s burning… it’s damn near the entire city of DC. We cluster around the television in the guest room, cloaked in silence as we watch the news reports roll in.

Jane is leaning forward with one hand over her mouth as if she’s stifling a burp that never comes. She rocks back and forth like a mental patient and slowly shakes her head no. Polly is sitting cross-legged on the floor and Cody keeps trying to put his arm around her, to pull her close, but she keeps shrugging him off which I secretly find to be the funniest thing I’ve seen all week. He’s persistent, like a goofy little puppy so eager to please that it doesn’t matter how many times he gets swatted on the nose. He just keeps coming back again and again and again.

I’m standing near the back of the room with my arms crossed over my chest, alternating my attention between the images that play out across the little television screen and wondering if I can see down the front of Polly’s shirt if I angle myself just right.

“Damn it, Cody… no. I’m trying to watch!”

The news keeps cycling through various footage which all seem to be variations on a single theme. The silhouette of the White House with a wall of orange and red flames blazing behind it, little yellow tongues licking through windows, hungry for every bit of oxygen they could ever hope to consume. Cut to the Lincoln Memorial, Honest Abe’s stony face flickering in light and shadow, and then to the Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, and finally to the giant obelisk of the Washington Monument: it stands like some sort of Egyptian stronghold rising up through the fires of Hell. The trees on either side of the National Mall are ablaze and mirror images of the destruction ripple in the waters of the reflecting pool.

“It’s like something of Biblical proportions out here, Nancy.” an unseen reporter yells at the anchorwoman. “The heat… the heat from these fires is just… well, it’s truly beyond words. Never in all my days have I seen anything like….”

“Carlos?”

The camera cuts to a woman in the studio who looks as if she were pulled out of bed and not given the chance to put her TV face on. Her makeup is smeared and crooked, her hair looks as if she’s been repeatedly pulling clumps free with her fingers, and her suit jacket is buttoned incorrectly.

“Carlos, I’m afraid we have to cut in for a moment. My producers…”

She puts a hand to one ear and tilts her head slightly for a moment.

“My producers are informing me that reports are coming in from all major metropolitan areas across the country: New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle, even Anchorage, Alaska. All of these cities have reported widespread fires that simply seemed to ignite as if from nowhere. There are further reports of looting and riots on a massive scale, but these have not been independently confirmed and should not, at this time, be necessarily linked with these out of control fires burning through our largest cities.”

The anchorwoman listens to her earpiece again and continues on in the same, breathless voice.

“This just in. Las Vegas has joined the ranks of the cities confirmed to be burning and an evacuation plan has been set into motion. We take you now to local affiliate….”

Jane is rocking even faster now and she keeps whispering my God, oh my god, my dear sweet God and I can see a single tear sliding down her cheek in the bluish glow of the television. Polly has now pushed herself as far from Cody as she can possibly get and he sits, skulking and ineffectual, near the edge of the bed.

Jane’s switched her mantra now. It’s the same pattern of words basically, the same teary over-emotional tone whispered into her hands: all those people, those poor, poor people….

On the television a reporter with a pencil thin mustache is standing at some undisclosed location. Or at least if it was disclosed I missed hearing about it because of Jane’s incessant whimpering. He holds a microphone with a cube just underneath the foam globe and the cube has a bright orange 9 that looks somehow manages to look cheerful without the benefit of expression.

“Excuse me, excuse me sir?”

He pulls a man by the sleeve into the frame of the shot and for a moment I notice how I can see distant fires reflected on the dial of the reporter’s wristwatch. But then he drops the arm and shoves the microphone into the face of someone who looks like he might be an accountant or perhaps a computer programmer.

“Vin Boucher, Channel Nine news. Sir, could you tell us what you’ve seen these last few minutes?”

The man ignores the camera, looking downward instead in silence.

“Sir, if you could just share with us some of your experiences, I think the viewing audience would greatly….”

“That’s a nice watch.”

“Excuse me?”

“That’s a nice damn watch.”

Without any warning, the accountant-looking man launches a fist into Vin Boucher’s face. He pummels him as blood begins to gush from a broken nose and a lip that has split like an overripe tomato. The reporter is trying to push the man away but they’re on the ground now, rolling and thrashing and flailing.

“Help him!” Jane screams at the television. “My God, put down the damn camera and help him!”

Vin Boucher’s face is streaked with blood and the sensitive microphone easily picks up his slight whimpers: “no, please stop, don’t, please…”

The guy pulls the watch from the reporter’s wrist and slides it onto his own. He admires it for a moment and then turns to look directly at the viewers.

“That’s a nice damn camera, too.”

The scene quickly cuts back to the newsroom where our disheveled Nancy is staring into the distance with her jaw hanging slightly open. The news feed at the bottom of the screen continues to scroll by but other than that nothing on the screen moves. It’s almost as if the entire studio has suddenly become frozen in time and I think how this shot would be worthy of being framed with all the other classics on our walls. But then the station quickly cuts to a commercial of spiky-haired Vince hawking his latest, life-changing innovation.

“He attacked that poor man. On live television! Just attacked him. For a watch? For a damn watch?”

Jane sounds like she’s bordering on hysteria, her voice raising in pitch until it’s so shrill that I’m surprised every glass in the house doesn’t instantly shatter.

What the hell is going on out there? What is fucking wrong with these people?”

She’s pacing around the room now, gesturing in the air with her hands like the conductor at a symphony of panic.

Cody, who has apparently given up on trying to comfort Polly, rushes over to Jane and takes her by the shoulders.

“Look, Jane.” he says in that annoying, fake accent of his. “We’re safe. That’s all that matters. We’re safe in here.”

I can’t help it. I start to laugh. At first it’s just a chuckle but the more I think about it, the funnier it seems and before long tears are streaming out of my eyes as I slap my thigh with my palm.

“What?” Jane screeches. “What is so damn funny, Richard?”

I wipe the tears from my eyes and sniffle a few times as I try to regain my composure.

“Sorry. I’m sorry. It’s just… well, do you honestly believe, Cody, that we’re really safe? Simply because we’re in this apartment?”

Cody looks flabbergasted and confused. Which, come to think of it, really isn’t that too far out of character for him.

“Yes. Yes, of course, we’re safe. Why wouldn’t…”

“Windows are made of glass.” I remind them. “Doors are made of wood. Last time I checked, neither one of those things were indestructible.”

“Now listen here, Richard, I’ve about had enough of….”

In the distance there’s a boom that severs the conversation as cleanly as a cleaver. It’s quickly followed by a second boom and then a third, each getting louder and closer with every repetition. Within seconds, we can feel the floor of the apartment quake with each successive clap and the little glass votive holders lining the shelves begin to rattle and shake. I’m reminded of the scene in Jurassic Park where the T-Rex is drawing closer and closer, it’s footsteps shaking the glass of water until the giant beast was bearing right down upon the heroes. Only I know what lurks outside the thin walls of this apartment is far more savage than any Hollywood dinosaur could ever dream of being. The beast bearing down upon us is the beast of change; and once it’s begun its charge there’s nothing anyone can do to put it down.

Through the thin linen curtains, we begin to see the flash of fireballs rising into the sky. Each one perfectly synchronized with one of the booms, each one bathing the room in brighter and brighter light.

And now there’s a sound from the streets below. A sound like the battle cry of five hundred warriors plucked from the streams of time and set down on the avenues of our fair city: Huns, Viking berserkers, the Spartans, and Samurai. William Wallace and his entire Scots army. The sound awakens something in my soul, some primal desire to feel the warmth of blood on my hands, to taste its saltiness on my lips, and smell the metallic aroma as it showers me with its holy spray. The desire to take what is rightfully mine and to defend it from anyone who mistakenly believes themselves to be man enough to take it from me.

Another explosion trembles our building and, at the same time, we’re plunged into darkness which causes a small shriek to escape from Jane. She’s pressed against me and I can feel her body shaking, but my eyes try to peer through the darkness, searching for Polly.

There’s a rumble of motors outside now, quickly followed by volley after volley of gunfire, more explosions, and cries of rage and pain. It also sounds like someone has begun to hammer on the main entrance to the door, as if they’re trying to pound it down with nothing more than bare fists and brute force.

“Jane.”

She’s latched onto me like a lamprey on a shark, but she seems unresponsive. It’s almost as if she’s caught somewhere between waking and a dream, her eyes vacant, her face pale and expressionless.

I shake her so hard her teeth rattle within her mouth.

“Damn it, Jane, snap the fuck out of it you stupid bitch!”

She blinks a few times and her brow furrows with confusion.

“You don’t have to get vulgar with me, Richard.”

I force myself to take the edge off my voice, to speak to her as if I were dealing with a small child.

“Janey, honey… you remember that trap door up on the top floor? The one with the little rope you have to pull? The one that leads up into the attic?”

She nods her head solemnly.

“Okay, Jane, I want you to take Polly up there, okay? You take her up there and you hide.”

Jane starts to pull away but then stops and has that confused look on her face again.

“What about you and Cody?”

Leave it to her to make something so simple into a major production that requires a committee meeting and detailed blueprints. I haven’t got time for this shit.

“We’ll be along shortly. Just take Polly to the attic, okay Janey? Take Polly to the attic.”

Polly appears in the darkness like a succubus materializing from thin air. She places her hand on Jane’s arm and looks at me with eyes that reflect understanding.

“Come on, Jane.” she says softly. “Why don’t you show me where this attic is, dearie.”

The two disappear into the darkness and moments later I hear our front door open and shut, followed by footsteps running up the stairs.

“What do you have in mind, Richard?”

Cody’s voice wavers with uncertainty and I know that in his heart of hearts, he’s wishing he was going with them. Upstairs to the attic. To hide with the other girls.

I don’t waste time answering him. I’m moving toward the kitchen now, my familiarity with the apartment guiding me effortlessly through the maze of furniture and obstacles. Cody isn’t quite as lucky and I hear him stumbling and cussing in the darkness behind me.

That Useless tit.

I’m in the kitchen now and I open the second drawer to the right of the sink, the one where the soldiers spent so much time measuring the blades of our knives during the weapons check. I pull out the longest one, a seven and a half inch chef’s knife. The blade is honed to such perfection that even in the darkness it gleams like a beacon of hope. Not bothering to shut the drawer, I push my way through the beaded curtain and into the living room just as Cody trips over an ottoman.

“Damn it,” I hiss, “haven’t your eyes started adjusting yet?”

“I got vision problems. I can’t see worth a dang and you damn well know that.”

I get a small burst of satisfaction to hear him drop the pretense and revert to his native twang.

“Now, you best be telling me real quick, Richard. What the hell’s the plan?”

I open the door of the apartment and point the knife into the hallway like a highwayman brandishing his sword.

“Stand and deliver.” I finally say softly. “Their money or their lives.”

From below, the pounding on the door has practically tripled in intensity. It’s a strong door, made of solid oak with nice iron hinges if I’m not mistaken. But how long can it hold out? How long until the violence of the street spills into the foyer and then up the stairs to the very threshold of my apartment?

How long indeed….


CHAPTER SIX

<p>CHAPTER SIX</p>

I stand on the landing with my heart beating tribal rhythms, whipping me into a blood frenzy that can only be sated with the promise of violence. I feel like my entire life has been building up to this point: all those years imprisoned in the cells of spreadsheets, the pleases and thank yous and May I. The toiling away for all the things I needed, but never coming even close to what I wanted. It had all been a precursor to this very moment, this particular point in time and history. After thirty-four years, I had finally become the man I was meant to be.

Which is more than I can say for the trembling buffoon behind me. He won’t last five minutes in this new world. Not unless he finds himself a stronger ally to attach himself to, not unless he becomes a bitch.

Outside there’s another burst of weapons fire. This sounds like fully automatic machine guns and bullets begin whizzing through the oak door at the bottom of the stairs. They tear through wood and plaster and the pounding noises abruptly come to an end, replaced by a crimson puddle that leaks under the door and spreads across the hallway like an invading cancer.

I’ve come to a realization as I stood here, ready for a battle which never quite made it to me: Ms Cline was right, for all the good it will do her now. I do want Polly.

But not in that sappy, happily-ever-after Disney storybook kind of way. No, I want her like some men want a shiny Cadillac with chrome trim and leather seats. I want her the way a bibliophile needs to have that first edition Kerouac to crown his collection. I want to own this beautiful, nubile, exotic young thing. I want her to be mine. Just like the accountant-looking guy wanted Vin Boucher’s shiny, gold watch.

And isn’t that what this new world is really about? You see something that you want and you take it. No questions. No justifications. No permission. You simply grab it and damn anyone who gets in your way.

I turn around and see that Cody looks as if he’s about to pass out. He’s leaning against the wall and panting like he’s just finished a marathon, shaking from his teeth all the way down to his knees. He’s so pale now that his goatee looks absolutely black in the half-darkness of the hall.

“I say,” he gasps, “that was a close one, wasn’t it? I thought for sure we were done for.”

The damn phony accent again. What the hell did Polly ever see in this loser? Maybe, it was simply a case of second bests. She couldn’t have me because she thought I was so wrapped up in Jane that it would never happen. Hard to believe that, for a long while, I’d believed that myself.

I take two steps and place my left hand on his shoulder.

“Well,” I say slowly, “one of us is.”

“What in blazes are you….”

I shove the chef’s knife into his gut and it feels just like stabbing an overstuffed pillow. He gasps sharply as his eyes grow large and round and his hands wrap around the handle protruding from his belly. Yanking the blade free, it slices through his palms, severing nerves and tendons, and his mouth is moving now like a fish who has been pulled from the river and thrown onto the bank to flounder and die.

I plunge the knife again, this time hooking my arm around his shoulders and pulling him into the thrust at the same time.

“You like that?” I hiss in his ears. “You want some more?”

Over and over, the blade pierces his skin; each time he shudders and gasps and soon I begin hitting bone and the jolt is like an electrical current that travels along my arm and vibrates in my shoulders.

My hand is sticky and warm now, like it’s been dipped into room-temperature glue and I feel almost stoned, perfectly aware of every sound, every sensation. Relishing every moment of my conquest.

I pull away and Cody staggers around the hallway for a moment, his arms cradling his gut like the pink intestines were a small baby that he could somehow protect. Dropping the knife, I rush toward him with a growl, pushing at his chest with my both my hands at the moment of impact. He stumbles backward and momentum carries his body over the railing; then he’s falling, end over end, bouncing off the hand rails and banisters and walls until his body hits the ground floor with a sound that’s like a thud, squish, and sharp crack all rolled into one.

It is complete now.

The competition has been removed from the playing field.

I look over the railing at Cody’s twisted, broken body for a moment and then go back into the apartment. I head into the kitchen and lather dish soap on my hands and forearms until it’s a pink froth; warm water washes the blood away and I watch as it swirls down the drain, realizing that it carries all the remnants of my old life with it.

I hear footsteps coming down the stairs. They sound tentative, as if the person is trying their hardest to achieve stealth but still failing miserably. A step, the squeak of a floorboard, a few moments of silence. Another step.

When the person reaches the landing I hear a sharp intake of breath and a sound like a hand being slapped over a mouth. Apparently whoever it is has seen the blood. And I imagine there’s quite a bit of it out there.

“Cody? Richard?”

Polly’s voice. She sounds as if she’s afraid to make a noise but knows that she has to. That if she doesn’t call out the suspense of not knowing will drive her mad.

“Anyone?”

“In the kitchen.” I reply as I dry my hands on the little towel with the art deco designs. The towel which Jane always said was decorative only. Which is probably one of the many reasons things had to change. Decorative towels. Form without function… that could very well be the epitaph on the tomb of humanity.

I hear the beaded curtain rattle behind me and my heightened senses pick up that unmistakable scent of Polly’s body. That tantalizing combination of sweat and powder and skin and perfume, so heady that I could get drunk just by breathing it in.

“Richard… where’s Cody? Whose blood is that out in the hall?”

Her voice sounds hopeful and frightened all at the same time and my stomach flutters a little. How long have I wanted this woman? How many years did I deny myself the pleasure of even admitting that I wanted her? All that wasted time….

“Yeah, Cody. I’m afraid he didn’t make it, honey. Didn’t make the cut, you might say.”

Silence.

I fold the towel carefully and place it back on its little rod.

I feel power surging through my veins like I’ve never known. When you have the ability to decide who live or dies, you become almost like a god. You see the entire world spreading out before you like a veritable buffet where you’re free to pick and choose only the things which most please you.

“Oh my God, Richard, you’re bleeding! There’s blood all over you!”

I hear her feet pattering across the tile and finally turn to face her. She’s more beautiful now than I have ever seen her; her skin so radiant that it almost seems to glow, her hair shiny and flaxen, her breasts jiggling slightly as she runs to me, the hem of her skirt swishing slightly around her ankles. And her shirt. The one she’s wearing now let’s me know it wasn’t all in my imagination. There’s a message there after all.

You Cannot Plow A Field By Turning It Over In Your Mind.

I smile and take her hand. So soft. So delicate and warm.

“The blood’s not mine.” I whisper. “It’s okay.”

I kiss her hand and breathe in the scent of her skin and then kiss again. I feel her arm stiffen and her words become clipped.

“Richard. What are you doing?”

I tighten my grip on her wrist and kiss a little higher up her arm, enjoying the tickle of the almost transparent hairs against my lips.

“It’s okay.” I assure her. “Cody’s out of the way. Jane doesn’t matter. It’s just you and me now, Polly. Just you and me.”

She tries to pull away and I feel her skin twist beneath my grip almost as if I were giving her an Indian burn.

“You’re hurting me! Let go!”

“Sshhhh. Sshhh. Be still pretty, pretty Polly. I’m here now.”

I yank her to me and I see fear reflected in her wide eyes. Or is that excitement?

She begins pummeling my chest with her free hand, scratching at my face, digging deep furrows into my skin.

Let me go!”

So that’s how it is. That little fucking tease. Leading me on. Showing me just enough of her body to arouse my interest. Mocking me. Well, it’s a new world now. A world where I’m free to just take whatever the hell I want. Whenever the hell I want it.

I throw her backward against the kitchen table, forcing her down upon its surface. She’s kicking and squirming and trying to bite at me with her teeth, but this only excites me further and I laugh like a king returning from the royal hunt.

“Richard, no! No, no, NO!”

“Richard’s dead, baby. Call me Rick. Or Dick. You like Dick, don’t you, Polly? Sure you do.”

Her screams echo through the kitchen, so shrill and desperate.

But it makes no difference.

It’s time to claim what has always been rightfully mine.


CHAPTER SEVEN

<p>CHAPTER SEVEN</p>

I’m trying to bunch up her skirt with my free hand while holding her down with the other. Which is a lot harder than I thought it would be. She’s writhing and kicking and squirming like a woman possessed by demons and my right forearm has bloody little teeth prints embedded into the flesh.

“Damn it, lay fucking still!”

I’m trying to twist my arm away from the vicinity of her mouth, trying to make sure she doesn’t get another chunk of my skin clamped between those pearly whites. But she’s wily, this one. She improvises a new strategy and throws her head forward with all her might. Her forehead cracks into my left temple and little flash-bursts of light explode in my vision.

Both hands are free now and she’s got her fingers hooked into claws, going for my eyes as she struggles to get away.

The table creaks and wobbles beneath our bodies and I pull my head back just in time to avoid the gouge she was going for.

With both my hands available however, the skirt becomes less of a problem and it’s quickly pulled up to her waist. Shit… panties. She had to be wearing fucking underwear didn’t she?

I’ve got to take some of the fight out of this feisty bitch. There’s no other choice. I ball my hand into a fist and pull back even with my jaw. A shame to bloody such a pretty face. But she really brought this on herself, didn’t she?

“Get the hell off her you degenerate son of a bitch!”

The voice is shrill and cuts through the struggle so sharply that for a minute I’m not entirely positive where I am. I hear footsteps running toward me and then my leg flares in pain as I roll off the table and fall to the floor. Sticking out of my thigh, I see a familiar black handle and just a hint of metal buried into the meat of my leg. I yank the chef’s knife free and it clangs to the floor as I press my hands against the wound. It feels like it’s throbbing in agony and spurts of blood ooze out in perfect rhythm with my heart.

“You think it’s fun to…”

I roll over onto my side and my assailant is mentally thrown off balance for a second.

“R-Richard? What… what the hell is going on?”

There’s no sign of Polly. She must have cut and run the moment I no longer had her pinned to the table. I stagger to my feet and the pain feels like the muscle is being pulled from my leg fiber by fiber.

Jane stands mere feet away from me, her forehead knotted with confusion as I drag my injured leg across the floor.

Step-scrape.

Step-scrape.

I see uncertainty in her eyes. It’s almost like she’s silently begging for answers, pleading for the world to make sense again.

“I don’t… I don’t understand.”

Step-scrape.

“I know, Janey. Everything’s real confusing right now, darling. It’s probably a lot like the dinosaurs felt when that big ’ole asteroid first pounded into the earth, isn’t it?”

She looks like she’s on the verge of tears, her blue eyes as watery as two pools. This poor woman. She was never cut out for this new world. She could never understand exactly what it will take to survive.

I place my hands on either side of her head, holding her face as if I’m about to lean in for a kiss.

“Was… was that… Polly?

She’s in shock, I think. Probably never expected in a million years to see me. Judging by the pool of blood she picked the knife up from, she probably thought I was dead. Poor, naive thing.

“Yeah, that was Polly.”

I massage her temples with the tips of my fingers, rubbing in slow circles. Her body tenses for a moment, then relaxes as she closes her eyes.

“Did you see where she went, Janey?”

Her eyes snap open and they spark with suspicion. But even so they are still dulled by that lost look. The look that so badly wants answers but is afraid of just what they might be.

“Why?”

“I’ve gotta find her, baby. I’ve gotta clear all this up. It’s all been a big misunderstanding, that’s all. Now where did Polly go, sweetie?”

She opens her mouth and for a moment I think she’s about to speak but then her lips close again. She seems uncertain, like she’s torn between the world she has always believed in and this new reality that has swallowed her up like a tasty morsel.

In the old days, she never would have come into her kitchen and witnessed what she did.

She never would have stabbed her lover of five years in the leg with a knife.

She tries to pull back but I keep her head between my palms, keep rubbing and easing the tension away from her scalp.

“Were you… were you raping her?”

“No, sweetie. No, no, no. I mean, I’m sure that’s probably what it looked like. But that’s all part of the confusion, see? That’s what I’ve got to explain to Polly. You just need to tell me where she went.”

“So, you weren’t… it wasn’t actually…. .”

“God no, Janey. It’s me… Richard. I marched with you remember? I helped out down at the shelter when you were shorthanded. Do you really think I would… do you really think I could do something like that?”

“I… I don’t know.”

She’s really crying now, her cheeks glistening with tears and she squeezes her eyes shut so tightly I can feel wrinkles form beneath the massaging tips of my fingers.

“Janey,” I say softly, evenly, “everything’s all turned upside down right now. Everything’s all crazy. But you gotta tell me where Polly went. It’s dangerous, understand? You tell me where Polly went and I’ll explain everything.”

Jane sniffles and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.

“She… she ran downstairs. She ran outside.”

Jane falls forward and buries her head against my chest. I slowly move my left hand further up her cheek, into the tangles of her curly red hair. My right hand cups her jawline and I continue rubbing, continue working out the tension.

“What the hell is going on, Richard? I don’t understand, I just don’t understand.”

“It’s simple really, Janey.” I whisper as she sobs against my body. “You’re a fucking bitch. And your time has come.”

Before the words truly have a chance to sink in, I twist her head with a savage jerk. I hear the bone snap, feel the pop through my hand, feel the power course through my body again.

She’s out there somewhere. And, by God, I’ll find her.

I will find her and make her mine.

I throw back my head and let loose with a savage cry that strains my vocal chords and sounds more animal than human. It’s the sound of primeval desires crashing up against the trappings of the modern world. It’s the sound of generations of repression and subjugation.

It’s the sound of havoc.

I am the King of this strange new world.

And my Queen is out there.

Waiting for me to claim her.


PART TWO

Climax of Brutality

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

<p>PART TWO</p> <p>Climax of Brutality</p>
<p>CHAPTER EIGHT</p>

The clouds in the sky seemed to dance with the distant glow of flames and the smell of smoke was thick and heavy. There weren’t any buildings that had been firebombed on this block yet, but — in the brief moments of silence that sometimes settled over the city –she could hear the crackling of fire, the roar of a hungry beast that devoured homes and buildings and left nothing more than blackened skeletons in its wake. But those instances of silence were few and far between. For the most part, the night was filled with the revving of engines, with gunshots and the tinkling of broken glass; screams and cries for help that went unanswered until they were abruptly cut off mid-sentence.

It was like the whole world had gone insane and she couldn’t help but wonder where the military had went. Where were the soldiers, the cops, the keepers of law and order? Shouldn’t they be out there in the streets, fighting their way through this urban nightmare and protecting those who simply wanted everything to go back to the way it was? But she hadn’t seen so much as a Humvee since she’d ran out of the apartment building, much less any type of organized retaliation against the anarchists who now seemed to hold the city in their grip.

What the hell was going on here?

Cody really was dead. She knew that now. At first she tried to tell herself that Richard was lying, that he was trying to gain control over her mind and emotions just as he’d tried to do with her body. But when she reached the bottom of the stairs Polly had seen his body sprawled across the foyer, sprawled in a pool of his own blood. She’d tried to look away but wasn’t quick enough: the images of broken bones jabbing through his flesh and clothes, the way his head seemed completely flat on the side facing the floor, the bizarre angles his legs and arms were splayed out in. All of these things had been burned into her consciousness and returned to haunt her visions each time she closed her eyes.

But she couldn’t think about that now. She had to push it all deep down inside, to swallow the pain and try to find something else to fill the void that threatened to cause her to implode. Cody would want her to survive, to go on, to fight tooth and nail if she must. And to do that she had to keep a clear head. There would be plenty of time for grief later, but for now she needed to focus. To stay alive.

After scrambling over the pile of bodies outside the main door, she’d made her way to the entrance of the apartment complex. The wrought iron gate that had once kept the world at bay was lying in the center of the street, the bars twisted and bent as if they had been pulled free with a force greater than a single person could ever manage. Poking her head around the corner, she saw a few people zigzagging back and forth through the darkness. But the majority of them seemed to be a block or so to the south. She could see their silhouettes, the way they dove through the air at one another, rolling across the ground as they grappled for control, bright bursts of gunfire, complete and utter chaos.

She slipped into the shadows along the wall and inched her way north instead, trying her best to stay low and quiet. She felt like her white shirt was as clear as a billboard, advertising her presence to anyone who might happen by. But she would need to replace it soon anyhow. During the struggle with Richard, it had been stretched and ripped to the point that it no longer really held its shape and kept trying to slide down over her breasts.

What the fuck had gotten into him anyway? He’d been like an animal, his lips pulled back into a snarl, that hungry look elongating his features, seeming to change him into a stranger right before her eyes. There was no doubt in her mind what he’d planned on doing to her. He’d made that abundantly clear. But how far would it have went? If she had decided to take the so-called easy road, like she did when she was a child, would he have been content to simply have his way and leave her crying on the table? Or did he have darker designs on her? If Jane hadn’t showed up when she did, God only knows how all of that would have turned out.

Richard. Sweet, unassuming Richard. It just didn’t make any sense. Sure, she’d caught him ogling her on few occasions and at the time had thought it was kind of funny. She and Jane had used to joke about it at the club, how he had this little schoolboy crush on her, how they could probably blow his friggin’ mind if she just slipped out of her clothes and hopped into bed with them one evening.

But there’d never been any indication, never any sign, that he was capable of something like this. And that, quite frankly, scared her more than anything else that had happened over the course of the last several weeks. How quickly and completely someone whom she thought she’d known could change. How he could go from being this mousy little office worker one minute to a drooling psychopath the next. And what exactly had happened to Cody? Had Richard been responsible for that as well? No, he couldn’t have been. The gashes in his shirt, the bloodstains that had seeped all across his torso… that was definitely murder. And she couldn’t believe that her best friend’s boyfriend could just outright kill one of their own. In cold blood, no less…

“Yeah,” she thought, “well yesterday you never woulda pegged him for a sicko fuckin’ rapist either, would you? Don’t put anything past that son of a bitch, girl.”

She knew her inner voice was right. The only person she could trust now was herself. Everything else had changed too much. Everything else was too damn confusing.

She picked her way through the remains of a plate glass window and into the darkness of Wilson’s Department Store. She could barely see racks overturned, clothes strewn about the floor, broken jewelry cases, and mannequins posed in vulgar positions. Finding another shirt in this mess would be tough, but it was necessary. She needed something dark and, as much as she hated to admit it, something tight fitting. She couldn’t afford for a skirt or a baggy t-shirt to get hung up on something if she needed to make a quick getaway. So she’d take her time and pick through the wreckage that used to be the women’s section, find exactly what she needed and go on from there.

The problem was everything seemed so much different in the dark. She’d been in this place a hundred times, had gotten some of her favorite bags from their purse and shoe section; but now she may have as well been picking her way along the dark side of the moon for all it was worth.

Somehow, Polly had found her way to the hardware section of all places. Talk about an alien environment…. However, she was pretty sure that this was on the opposite side of the store. At least it was in most shops, almost like they thought if they could put enough distance between husbands and wives the two sexes would never know how much money the other was spending until it was too late. So it seemed as if she’d been going in the wrong direction all along. She cursed to herself, took a step, and then felt as if the carpet of the world had suddenly been pulled out from beneath her feet. She pin-wheeled her arms, struggling to maintain balance, but — as one of her many t-shirts often reminded her — she had to obey gravity… it was the law. She fell to the floor and landed flat on her ass so hard that her spine jarred and her teeth clacked loudly.

At least she hadn’t tried to break her fall with her hands, though. It would’ve been very easy to snap a wrist that way. And that was definitely the last thing she needed.

“What the hell?” she mumbled as she picked herself up with a wince. “What the bloody hell?”

After a moment of searching, she found the culprit: a big, yellow screwdriver that had apparently spilled out of some overturned bin and then lurked in the shadows, just waiting to trip up an unsuspecting woman.

“You little bastard, you won’t be doing that again.”

Tucking the screwdriver into the waistband of her skirt, she began feeling her way through the darkness again. It was a bit easier this time as her eyes had started adjusting to the gloom. She began to recognize landmarks along the way: the cosmetic counter which was now covered in a fine layer of white dust, the beloved shoes and bags, the escalator which lead up into sleepwear.

Finally she was searching through the piles of clothing on the floor, looking for a simple black t-shirt and dark jeans in her size. As usual, finding something that actually fit her was like panning for gold; she had to sift through layer after layer of worthless silt until she finally found her treasure. Down near the very bottom of the heap. Of course.

Stripping off her ruined shirt almost felt like shedding a skin. It was as if Richard’s hands had somehow tainted the fabric; as if whatever sickness had changed him into a maniac had colonized the cotton and fibers, leaving the garment feeling dirty and almost greasy to the touch. She flicked it away between pinched fingers. The skirt had to go too. He’d been all over that piece, squirming his nasty body over it like some sort of legless fucking lizard, fumbling and pulling and yanking.

A shudder coursed through Polly’s body and she stepped out of the skirt, trying to put thoughts of the ordeal out of her head. The screwdriver clattered to the floor and she scooped it up like a bird of prey catching a rabbit.

“Oh no you don’t. Fool me once, shame on you and all that jazz.”

She was just reaching for the t-shirt when she heard something. A slight scuffling in the store. She froze in place and listened as she held her breath. For a moment everything was quiet and she had just begun to think it was her imagination when she heard it again. Furtive and sneaky… not an animal. A stray dog or cat wouldn’t care if anyone in the store heard them. Human? In all likelihood, yes.

Richard? He wouldn’t come looking for her would he? No, that was ridiculous. She’d seen Jane stab him with what looked to be a pretty good-sized knife. Even if, for whatever twisted reason might possess his deformed mind, he did want to come after her, Polly seriously doubted he was in any shape to do so. Hopefully, Jane had killed the bastard.

A whistle echoed through the silence of the store and it took a moment before she recognized the tune. It was the theme from the Andy Griffith Show. Now that it was obvious that she wasn’t alone in the store, her heart began to race so fast that should could feel her pulse twitch in her left eyelid.

“Hey girlie-girlie-girl….”

The voice was high pitched and slightly nasal. Definitely not Richard.

That, however, didn’t mean that this stranger was any less dangerous.

“I know you’re in here. I saw you come in.”

There was a loud clang of metal on metal, as if he had swung some sort of pipe and hit one of the beams that the price check machines were attached to.

“Come out and play, girlie-girlie-girl. Come to, Daddy.”

Another clang.

“It won’t hurt… much.”

Laughter echoed in the darkness and she made her way toward the escalators, still dressed only in her bra and panties. Of all the rotten damn timing…. She’d always rolled her eyes when she’d watched movies and the heroines stripped down only to find themselves immediately placed in the path of the monster or psychopathic killer. She’d thought it was cheesy and more than a bit trite. But now look where she was. All she could keep thinking as she slipped through the store was you gotta be frigging kiddin’ me.

She tried to ease up the escalator in sort of a duck-walk fashion, hoping that the sides would at least keep her partially hidden from view.

From behind her, she heard another clang. This time closer. Louder.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are….”

Almost to the top now, sleepwear and lingerie.

Clang.

She struggled to keep her breathing steady: slow inhale through the nose, exhale softly through the mouth. Just like in yoga.

“Keep it together, girl. You are not going to die in this place.”

Laughter again, this time seeming to swirl all around her, as if it were forming from the very molecules of air itself. A hundred million tiny voices all giggling in unison.

“There you are! Daddy’s home… why don’t you come and give him a big, wet kiss?”

Shit. The man was at the bottom of the escalators. No time for stealth now. She broke into a run, scrambling up the few remaining stairs as he banged his pipe off the bottom step, this time resulting in more of a dull clunk than a clang.

He continued up the rest of the escalators slowly, pausing on each one to smack the step ahead of him. He was whistling again, the bastard.

Polly stood as motionless as possible and concentrated on her breathing. So shallow, so soft, that she even her breasts didn’t rise and fall. She stood rock still and watched as he worked his way through the racks, thrusting his pipe into the middle of each one in case she was hidden within the clothes like a rabbit in a warren.

“I’m gonna getcha girlie-girlie-girl. I’m gonna getcha….”

He was close now. So close that she could see dark stains covering his jacket and shirt. Stains which, in any other situation, she probably would have mistaken for motor oil.

But in this new, fucked up world she knew exactly what had caused those stains.

And she knew that unless she was very, very careful within the course of a few seconds she would be adding a few stains of her own to the ensemble.

And that couldn’t happen. Not after all she’d been through, damn it. It simply couldn’t happen.

“I’m gonna getcha….”

<p>CHAPTER NINE</p>

It was utterly glorious. The smoke. The fire. The blood that formed Rorschach patterns on the streets and sidewalks. Bodies were starting to pile up, heaping one on top of the other like mass Cambodian graves. Everything was swirling in chaos and Richard felt as if he were a general strolling through a victorious battlefield. The weak were falling and the strong were emerging as the dominant species, claiming the golden thrones that had awaited them for so long; even his leg didn’t hurt, not really. He’d ripped up one of Polly’s t-shirts and tied it so tightly around the wound that the leg of his pants almost seemed to bulge up around the tourniquet. Downing half a bottle of Captain Morgan had further dulled the throbbing pain and he found that he was able to walk with only the slightest of limps.

When he’d made his way out of the apartment, he’d caught a glimpse of something shiny peeking out from underneath one of the bodies crumpled by the main entrance. He’d tossed the corpses aside as if they were nothing more than bags of garbage; which — in a way — they were. Simply meat sacks now, waiting for decay to set in and reduce their soft parts to a smelly ooze. Completely disposable. And once they were out of the way he’d found his treasure beneath, gleaming like a sacred relic and waiting to be claimed.

The machete felt good in his hand. Almost as if it were simply an extension of his arm. He took a couple test swings, enjoying the sharp whack it made as the blade sank into the skull of one of the bodies. Placing his foot against the head for leverage, he pulled the weapon free and smiled.

Oh this was good… this was really good.

When he hit the street he’d allowed himself to be distracted. He’d seen the action a few blocks away and made a bee-line for it.

He made no attempt to hide. He walked openly down the center of the street, swinging the machete at his side, as he placed one foot in front of the other, allowing the double yellow lines to guide him into the fray.

When he was close enough to smell the tang of the blood, to hear the moans of those who’d been left to bleed-out on the asphalt he broke into a quick trot, weaving back and forth across the lines now like a serpent on a branch. His pulse quickened and the trot became a jog, the jog a run, and then he was totally oblivious to the fresh blood streaming down the side of his thigh as his wound puckered with each flex of the muscle like some grisly mouth expecting a kiss.

Richard burst through a crowd of hooligans and suddenly he was spinning and ducking, whirling like a dervish on meth, his arms swinging the blade of the machete in wide arches. He felt flesh and cloth rendered beneath his attack, felt the spray of warm blood on his face, and heard the unmistakable sucking sound of chest wounds as he ran people through. Some of his victims staggered around with their hands clutching their throats, trying to contain the arc of blood that gushed from the wide slit on their necks. Others had arms, legs, and hands drop uselessly to the asphalt: phantom impulses caused the fingers to twitch, as if they could somehow claw their way back up the street and reattach themselves to their former bodies.

And it was everything he’d ever dreamed it would be. The confusion. The sounds of the battlefield, of skirmishes lost and won in a conflict that had no clearly defined sides. He could give or take life as he saw fit, could claim the spoils of war as he pleased… out here he was so much more than the sum of his parts. He was a machine: a perfectly timed, precision juggernaut that couldn’t be stopped.

Molotovs were tossed from somewhere, the glass bottles shattering across the concrete as blue flames whooshed into existence and spread like lakes of Hell across the road. Those close to the point of impact were engulfed by the fire and they stumbled around, human shaped torches, screaming in wordless agony as their fat hissed and bubbled, melted and dripped away from their skeletons.

Damn idiots. Stop, drop, and roll mother fuckers. Stop, drop, and roll.

He noticed a group of men clustered together on the sidewalk, watching all the carnage go down. They were all dressed in desert camos with boonie hats flopping on the top of their heads, mirrored shades reflecting the light of the fires so that it almost seemed as if flames were burning somewhere deep within their skulls. Not military: their equipment had the look of surplus, of hand-me-down goods from an older brother they hated with a passion. One of the militias then.

Another strolled up the sidewalk to join the group and he raised his fist at a ninety-degree angle and mouthed the words freedom or death. The others repeated this display and Richard felt the urge to laugh.

How sweet. They had a secret handshake for their little club.

Richard began backtracking, slaughtering his way in reverse so to speak, the blade of the machete singing through the air like the voice of the angel of judgment. There. Over behind the parked car. The one that, miraculously, hadn’t been firebombed yet. He thought he’d seen it out of the corner of his eye, but now he knew for certain.

Oh man, was this going to be great….

The members of The Sons of Eternal Freedom stood beneath the awning where they would be safe from any incendiaries lobbed from above. They watched the people on the street as knives flashed, as Saturday Night Specials spit deadly little peas into eye sockets and ears, and money changed hands back and forth.

“I got twenty on the little fella in the football helmet.”

“Put me down for fifty on the chick with the mohawk.”

And, as often as the cash was passed back and forth, so was the bottle of Vodka one had pulled from his rucksack. They’d expected to see more action, actually. But once things really went to hell in a hand basket, the military had pulled back for some reason. At first they huddled in stores, believing that a bombing run surely had to be on the way. But the sky was never parted with the shrieks of jets and the only explosions rocking these streets were homegrown ones: IDEs, cars crashing into the sides of buildings, gas stations in the distance giving up their precious oil to the fury of the uprising. It was actually better than they could have even planned themselves but required little intervention on their part.

“Shit,” one of them drawled, “wonder where the hell Machete Guy done run off to? Dropped two-Gs on that mother fucker. Never figured him for a coward.”

The street wars were like their own personal Ultimate Fighting Championships. However, the losers of these matches paid the supreme cost; none of them would be coming back within a few weeks to have another go at the title.

“Anyone know exactly what they hell they’re fighting about anyway?”

No one did. But occasionally one of the brawlers would get a bit too close. Or maybe they’d be foolish enough to point the barrel of a gun at the spectators. Either way, this display of unsportsmanlike conduct was dealt with swiftly and decisively: it was a proven fact, time and time again, that even the thickest human skull was no match for a Mark XIX Desert Eagle with a fluted barrel.

One of their members came shambling along the sidewalk, the brim of his hat pulled down low and sunglasses gleaming in the fading light of the fires. Before long they’d have to remove the shades or they’d be running blind in a night fight… which wasn’t something any of them wanted to experience. Not on this scale, at least.

“That Roy? I think that’s Roy. Where in tarnation has he been? Done missed all the best parts.”

The newcomer stood in front of them and raised his fist in salute.

“Freedom or Death.”

The others raised their hands in return and were mouthing the slogan when it began to dawn on them. Something wasn’t right. That didn’t really sound like Roy at all and the pants were a bit too short weren’t they? Besides, Roy always wore white tube socks not those pansy argyle sons of bitches.

But by then it was too late. In a fluid movement, Richard ripped the machete from the duct tape that had held it to his back and began his dance of death all over again. He concentrated on the raised hands first, lopping them off at the wrists so they wouldn’t be able to slide the pistols from the holsters slung at the men’s sides. As the so-called freedom fighters struggled to remove weapons with their weaker hands, they were cut down one by one with a blade that had learned to like the taste of blood and only craved more.

Richard stooped and started grabbing the wads of cash the men had been gambling with; all this action had made his leg flare up again, so he took a look tug on the vodka, enjoying the burning trail it left down his throat.

And then it hit him.

That bitch Polly. She was out here somewhere. And he’d wasted precious time playing with these bozos. She never would’ve come this way. She would have tried to stay out of sight, would have followed the path of least resistance.

He had to double back.

He had to find her.

It was a matter of principal now.

The sweetest blood he could ever taste on this, the night of his greatest glory, belonged to that blond haired slut.

And he aimed to drink deeply from that crimson well long before the sun gathered enough courage to peek over the horizon.

<p>CHAPTER TEN</p>

The man smelled like cabbage which made Polly want to gag as waves of revulsion crashed over her body. The smell brought back memories of childhood, memories that she would have rather kept buried in the depths of her subconscious. It was all too easy to imagine that the man was her grandfather, slinking through the shadows of her bedroom while the rest of the house was still and quiet. He’d smelled like cabbage, too. She’d had to taste that rancid stink every time the old man shoved his tongue down her throat, every time he whispered in her ear that if she ever, ever told anyone that he would kill her little brother. He’d make it look like an accident, he said. And nobody would believe the word of a little girl who’d developed a reputation for spinning tall tales since her parents had died; they would all think she was lying, that she was simply trying to get back at him for not buying her the doll house she wanted or that pretty yellow dress. No, who would believe a little girl over him? She’d just better be a nice little girl and do exactly what he told her if she knew what was good for her….

So night after night he’d slip into her room and hurt her in ways a little girl should never be hurt. All the while telling her how beautiful she looked, how sexy she was, and how he knew she wanted this as much as he did by the way she stared at him when he was chopping wood. She would bite her bottom lip to keep from screaming, would squeeze her eyes shut so tightly the tears were forced out like water from a sponge, would pray that her father would somehow burst through the door to save her, that everything could go back to how it used to be, before the car crash. But no one ever came. Night after night, year after year… even when she’d tried smearing chicken blood inside her panties to make him think she was having her period. Even when she really did have her period. And each time there was the smell of cabbage souring the air around her, suffocating her in its stink….

But she didn’t need that bastard haunting her. Not now. Not with so much at stake. She had to bring her attention back to the present, to remember that it was her life she was trying to protect this time.

Focus.

The man was whistling again and he drug the pipe behind him, allowing the metal to grate across the floor with a scraping that set her teeth on edge. And he just kept circling her: never moving away, never drawing too near. It was almost as if he had some sort of onboard radar that let him know she was close… so very close… without ever giving away her actual position.

She wasn’t sure how long she could keep this still and quiet. The muscles in her legs were beginning to ache, her arms and shoulders becoming sore. She tried willing individual muscles to flex slightly, just enough to keep the shakes from setting in; but it required so much concentration she was afraid something else might suffer. That she might exhale a little too loudly. That her bladder might give way and mark her location with a pungent puddle. There were so many little things that could go wrong.

Maybe this wasn’t such a bright idea after all.

And the cabbage… it had to be cabbage, didn’t it? Her stomach acids churned and she felt them threatening to shoot up her esophagus, to flood her mouth with the bitterness and sting of bile. But even the smallest hitch, even the slightest wretch, and it would all be over.

She could hear the man muttering under his breath now. So very close.

“Where you at girlie-girlie-girl? I know you’re around here somewhere. Come to Daddy. Come on now.”

He retraced the same path he’d been traveling for the last ten minutes: through the circular clothing racks, past the mannequins in their slinky black teddies and baby doll nighties. As he passed each one, the fucking perv trailed his free hand over their cold, plastic breasts.

“Damn it, I’m tired of this bullshit!”

His yell made her eardrums feel as if they were trembling and was so sudden and unexpected that she was surprised she didn’t jump. Or at least gasp. But no, she’d somehow managed to remain as still as the dead; maybe she had more control than she’d ever given herself credit for. Maybe she was really as strong, after all, as her t-shirt slogans lead the world to believe.

“You come out now and I’ll make it quick. Hell, I might even let ya live. But I definitely won’t make you suffer. Not if you just come out right now.”

He was standing in front of a mannequin dressed in a rather plain set of bra and panties, scanning the darkness with a slow swivel of his head.

“Shit, bitch,” he mumbled, “you’re gonna suffer so bad you’ll wish I had killed ya.”

He reached out as he peered into the gloom and gave the dummy’s left tit a little squeeze. The breast flexed slightly beneath his fingers like a balloon filled with warm water.

“What the….”

The mannequin’s raised arm swooped downward and for a fraction of a second the man who smelled of cabbage screamed. His yells echoed through the empty department store as if mocking the searing pain that had exploded through his skull; but then he fell silent as blood oozed from his ear and coated the yellow handled screwdriver that had somehow sprouted from the side of his head.

Polly let go of the tool and the man immediately fell to the ground as if her grip had been the only thing keeping him aloft. He laid there, twitching and jerking, as a crimson halo blossomed around his head. His eyes were still moving so he was still alive… technically. Not really much of a life, though. How much could you actually function with a six inch screwdriver embedded into the soft tissue of your brain? Judging from the smell of shit wafting from the rear of his trousers and the dark stain spreading across the front, not a whole hell of a lot.

Polly bent over and picked up the pipe that lay beside the man’s convulsing body. It was heavier than it looked; lead probably judging from how solid it felt in her hands. She took a practice swing and frowned at the amount of strength it took just to control the pipe’s arc. But it would have to do. Unless something better came along, that was.

She stood in front of the man’s body and the image of a golf pro lining up a shot sprang to mind. She began by touching the pipe gently against the end of the screwdriver and then pulled back slowly as if for a swing. She held the position, both hands gripping one end of the pipe, the other held over her head and almost horizontal with the floor; she watched him spasm, watched his eyes dart from the business end of the metal rod to her grip on it. No doubt thinking about how far a single swing would drive the screwdriver into his head. If, that was, he was still capable of thinking at all.

None of the emotions raging within Polly were betrayed by her expression. She stared down at him with all the blankness of the mannequin she had pretended to be: the rage, the years of frustration that had been shoved down so deeply within her, the humiliation and pain. All of this barely touched her face as she watched this twitching, pathetic worm of a man.

She took a deep breath and swung the pipe.

It whistled through the air in a deadly arc and the man’s pupils widened as his eyes seemed to bug out from his head; but the end of the pipe passed harmlessly above him, the breeze from its passing doing nothing more than rustling his hair.

“I don’t think so, prick.”

Polly knelt next to him and closed her eyes for a moment. In the darkness of her mind she saw a blond haired gir dressed in a white nightgown spotted with golden princess crowns, the child was solemn and silent; she, too, was kneeling and before this little girl was the crumpled body of a man with sparse gray hair and a milky cataract filmed over his right eye. He was frail and wasted, nothing more than a skeleton hiding beneath skin as thin and wrinkled as tissue paper.

This was the girl’s grandfather from years later: after she’d put on all the weight during her teen years, the cancer had ravaged his body as thoroughly as he had her own. She’d never visited him in the hospital and everyone had assumed that it was simply because she couldn’t bear to see him in that state. That she wanted to remember him as he always had been, not as this zombie-like shell of a man. But still they urged her to pay her respects, to wish him a final goodbye. She would regret it later if she didn’t, they said. But she secretly knew that the only regret she would ever have is that she hadn’t killed the old bastard herself.

The little girl placed her lips close to his ear and prayed that he could actually hear her, that he could comprehend the whispered words coming out of her mouth. But when she spoke, the voice was that of an adult woman and fantasy overlapped with reality.

“You’re gonna suffer so bad you’ll wish you were dead. Mother fucker.”

Polly stood, tucked the pipe beneath one arm as if it were a parasol, and left the man lying on the floor with the screwdriver burrowed into his head, as helpless and scared as an abandoned baby. And with him, she also left something else: a part of her that had always hidden beneath those loose baggy clothes, a part which she had tried for so long to forget had ever actually existed. As she walked away, tears trickled from the corners of her eyes and her steps felt as if she’d just removed twenty pound weights that had been strapped to her ankles for decades. She cried and she smiled… after all this time, the little girl was finally free.

She dressed quickly, slipping into the jeans and t-shirt without ceremony. As an afterthought, she picked out a good pair of track shoes, black as well, and some nice dark socks. That ought to do.

She then picked her way through the department store, slipped out the window through which she’d initially entered, and was back on the street.

She’d keep heading north, see if she could make it out of town. Surely this type of thing couldn’t be happening everywhere. She understood from the news that all of the major cities were entirely embroiled in chaos; but there had to be small town, little villages and hamlets, where life went on as it always had. Places where all the violence and killing were nothing more than pictures on the television, something to worry about and discuss over dinner… but not something that really effected your life. That had to be out there somewhere, didn’t it? It had to be.

So she kept moving forward. Whenever possible she crept through long rows of hedges and shadow, laying flat and still in the dirt when she’d hear the sputtering of a motorcycle or the wild whoops of savages on the rampage. She’d become quite adept now at holding her breath, at taking only the minimum amount of air necessary for consciousness. Her experience in the department store had showed her exactly what she was capable of and the lengths to which she would go to simply survive. She knew that she lacked the physical strength to take on every threat that crossed her path. But as far as she could tell, these were more like rabid animals than human beings. They seemed to attack with little to no reason. Sometimes the victorious looted the bodies of the fallen as if it were nothing more than a mugging taken to the extreme. But, more often than not, it seemed as if they were killing simply for the sake of the act itself.

The two men in the parking lot of Tateman’s Funeral Home, for example. As she hid behind a dumpster, she’d seen them charge one another, each brandishing a baseball bat like a samurai sword and running like shogun locked into mortal combat. Their yells quivered in their throats, breaking and straining as they sprinted full force with the bats raised above their heads.

At the last possible second, both men swung and there was a sharp crack as the wooden weapons smacked into one another. From that point on it was a viscous attack of swings and dodges, blocks and misses, neither man showing mercy as he struggled for dominance.

The larger one, whom she’d begun to think of as Curly, took these shuffling side-steps backward, fending off a particular furious barrage of swings from the smaller man, whom she’d dubbed Moe due to his dark, bowl-cut hair. Maybe she’d moved slightly or perhaps it was something else; but for a split second Curly was distracted and he stumbled over one of those oblong concrete dividers that keep cars from backing into one another. He fell on his rear but Moe showed no quarter, swinging his bat instead with a renewed sense of urgency.

Curly held his own bat by both ends, slightly over his head, and blocked the swings of his attacker again and again as he tried to scoot across the parking lot on his ass. Each time the bats connected there was a loud pop, sharper than the one proceeding it, and Moe’s nostrils had begun to flare wide as his face pulled back into a rigor of unadulterated fury. Again and again he brought the bat down as cracks began splitting his opponent’s weapon lengthwise until, finally, Curly’s bat splintered in half.

Moe seemed to see this as his coup de tat: he shook his Slugger over his head like an angry gorilla and prepared to bring it down with one final sweep. At the same time, however, Curly had tossed the fat end of his bat aside and held the remaining piece by the grip-taped handle. As the little one made his swing, Curly thrust the sharp shards of broken wood upward; his weapon sank into his opponent’s chest at the same time Moe’s bat cracked open his skull. The two men collapsed upon each other, neither one emerging as the victor, both dying as their blood mingled on the asphalt.

And that was the way most of the skirmishes seemed to play out: nothing more than blind rage devoid of any reasoning or strategy as far as she could tell. It was as if the rioters were relying almost entirely upon brute force and animalistic instinct. But Polly, she had cunning on her side. She had the ability to think things through, to not simply allow consequences to dictate her course of action. And that, perhaps, just might be the edge she needed to keep her ass alive.

After witnessing the battle at the funeral parlor, Polly managed to go several blocks before she had to duck into a butcher’s shop. There was a body builder type who was running down the road at full speed. He didn’t seem to have any obvious weapons, but his sheer size made him a big enough threat to warrant evasion.

Luckily, she’d been able to slip into the store before he caught a glimpse of her. She picked her way through the darkness carefully and made her way to the back where she found a shiny cleaver partially embedded into the skull of a man with a bushy mustache and blood spattered apron. There was no way to tell if the blood were animal or human, but it didn’t really matter. The lead pipe had been bulky and cumbersome; it slowed her down when she was on the run and had almost given her away several times with its attempts to roll away. But this cleaver… it was light and deadly, easy to swing without taking a toll on her already exhausted body, and specifically designed for hacking through flesh and bone. Yeah, the clever would work nicely….

Under normal situations, it would have only taken Polly half an hour or so to reach the other side of town. But this was stop and go, slink and stealth, run and hide: progress was made in small spurts and she had to stay patient after she’d left the butcher with her new weapon in hand. After all if she just broke out into a full on sprint for the finish line, she’d never make it. Not in one piece, at least.

She kept on, slow and steady, until finally she was nearing the outskirts of town. Just around the next bend and she’d be leaving all this madness behind. She’d find somewhere where she could begin trying to put the pieces of her life back together again. Somewhere normal where she could finally find time to cry for Cody. Hell, where she could finally find time to cry for herself….

And fuck this place anyway. Let all those crazy bastards kill each other. Let them keep right on going until not a single one was left standing. She didn’t care anymore and wanted nothing more than to put it all behind her.

As she rounded the corner, she was suddenly bathed in lights brighter than any she’d ever seen. They warmed her face with the heat of a dozen tanning beds and she squinted into the glare as she shielded her eyes with the crook of her arm.

Great. What fresh hell was this, then?

And in this stark field of vast whiteness she heard a voice that sounded as if it were being broadcast over some sort of loudspeaker or bullhorn.

Do not attempt to cross the yellow line….

What the hell?

Her eyes had begun to adjust to the light and she could see it now. Painted in bright yellow, nearly six feet in width, was a large strip that bisected the road horizontally. On the other side of the yellow stripe was a bank of lamps that illuminated the landscape as if it were day. Further beyond that was a row of military transports, parked so closely together that a piece of paper wouldn’t have been able to pass through their bumpers. They entirely blocked both lanes of the road.

The use of deadly force has been authorized. I repeat….

In front of the vehicles was another row, this one of soldiers standing nearly shoulder to shoulder. Their faces were entirely cast into shadow beneath the netted helmets atop their heads; but she didn’t need to see their expressions to realize exactly what was going on. For each soldier held some sort of machine gun. And each machine gun was raised slightly in her direction.

Do not attempt to cross the yellow line….

<p>CHAPTER ELEVEN</p>

She’d been this way. He knew it. It wasn’t as if there were tracks he could follow or that she was leaving scraps of clothing here and there. But it only made sense. She would probably be trying to get out of town, to put as much distance between herself and him as she could. And since the majority of the fighting was going down on the South Side, she had to be heading north. He almost imagined that he could smell her scent in the air, that aroma of wildflowers after a spring rain. But tinged with something else: the acrid stench of fear seeping from her pores. She was alone, defenseless, a mere woman turned loose in a world of Gods. In fact, there was a good chance that she was holed up somewhere, perhaps in a burnt out storefront, crying softly and wishing that everything would simply go away. That she could rest and find peace… that she could close her eyes and never have to worry about pain or illness or suffering ever again.

He imagined himself stepping over blackened timbers, the trusty machete by his side, his shadow falling across her delicate form. She would look up with streaks of makeup smeared across her face; she would tremble as he extended his hand to brush her bangs away from her eyes; but as his fingers graced her skin, she would sigh softly. Polly would realize that it had been a mistake fighting the first time; that she simply should have given in. After all, who does not sooner or later bend to the will of God?

And he would rip her clothes from her, tearing them from her body so easily that the threads may have as well been dry rotted and held together more by faith than any actually skill in tailoring. She would tremble before him, perhaps shyly covering her breasts and pubis… that was to be expected. But her body would quiver for entirely different reasons once he was inside her, once she knew the gift he’d been trying to bestow upon her. He would feel the tiny spasms of her muscles, the rise and fall of her perfect breasts against his chest as her breathing quickened. The warmth of her sighs tickling the little hairs lining his ears.

Then, once he’d had his way and the hunger had been sated, he would save her. He’d take her life from her, sparing her the all of the horrors of a world that he knew now that she could never survive in. He would be her hero and she would go willingly into that cold, eternal night. And as the light slowly faded from her eyes, she would hear the galloping of hoof beats and know that finally, at last, she had been delivered into His kingdom.

But first he had to find the stupid bitch. There were so many places she could be hiding and he simply didn’t have time to check them all. So he moved forward on instinct, searching shoe stores and newsstands, coffee shops that looked as if a tornado had passed through them, and all the little places she might find a modicum of comfort in. Sometimes he got the distinct impression that she had been there. Nothing more than a gut feeling really. But it was enough to urge him to continue on, to drive him forward.

And it was all still so glorious. The dead weren’t as numerous on this side of town but every so often he could see would-be contenders to the almighty throne who had tried to prove themselves and were found wanting. Early in the search, there was a pathetic puddle of a man who laid shivering in fear as Richard approached. What looked to be a screwdriver had somehow found its way into the side of his head and he watched this lost soul for several moments, laughing at the way the man’s eyes would flinch every time he cut off a finger. And yet the fool never tried to pull his hand away. Not even once. After all the digits had been severed, Richard stuffed them into his pocket: they might make an admirable necklace sometime, a reminder of the hunt which now defined his life. He considered taking the head as well, but figured it would be bothersome to transport and would tend to get in the way in the midst of a fight. So he left the man lying there, bleeding from the remains of both of his hands as well as the ear in which the screwdriver was impaled.

Part of him had to truly admire the warrior who’d done that. Humans are as slippery as eels, tricky and quick. To actually shove a tool that far into the brain… well, that took something of a special gift. Not one as great as his own, of course, but a talent none-the-less. What he wouldn’t give to face this worthy adversary in battle, to know his blood upon the blade of the machete. It would be an honorable death, one the unknown destroyer could take pride in.

Later he came across two idiots who looked as if they had taken each other out in unison. Now they were locked in Death’s embrace, clutching each other like lovers. For these two, he had no respect what-so-ever. This was more of a clown show, an amusement for children who weren’t yet old enough to witness the true bloody spectacle of the circus; unzipping his pants, he took a piss on the corpses and chuckled as he imagined that it was actually Polly and Jane lying there.

Where the hell was she anyway? He was getting closer to the edge of town with each passing moment… was it possible he’d be wrong? That she hadn’t been hiding at all? Perhaps even now she was miles from this place, hitchhiking along some country road, praying that someone would pick her up who would end it all. Perhaps a drunk driver who would crash them into the river when he took out the guardrail of a bridge. Or one of those traveling amateurs who kill twelve or so helpless women, hiding them in garbage dumps and shallow graves almost as if they are ashamed of their work. They pretended to aspire to greatness but never really possessed the courage to reach out and take it. Even the homo-erotic clowns in the funeral home parking lot possessed more honor than these would-be saviors. At least those buffoons had some measure of pride in what they did; at least they understood exactly what all the killing was for. Even if they did it so badly.

But, no. He was positive that wasn’t the case. He was meant to rescue her from all of this, it was his destiny, the labor he must complete before his full glory could be completely known. He had to claim his prize, to prove that she had not, indeed, bested him back in the kitchen.

The kitchen… that seemed so long ago now. As if it had all taken place in another life, perhaps to a different person. And, in a way, it had. The God had always been slumbering within him, waiting for The Great Change to awaken it, to allow him to ascend to glory. He’d just never possessed the courage to simply take whatever it was he desired. If he was angry, he should have struck down the person who ired him; if he was lustful, he should have taken the woman who had stirred his loins with passion. Things would have been so much different if only he’d realized all this so much sooner.

But, as Jane used to say, better late than never. It was probably the only true wise thing to ever come out of her mouth. And because it was better late than never, he would find Polly. He would find her, he would take her, and then he would save her.

And she would thank him for it.

He’d allowed his mind to wander, to drift off into thoughts of things to come. Which was dangerous out here. You had to keep yourself in a constant state of hyper-awareness, to remain as sharp and focused as a laser sight. Every little sound, the slightest of movements in a darkened window, that prickling sensation on the back of your neck that made you wonder if someone were watching you, lurking in the shadows as they awaited the opportunity to pounce: these things were very real, very important. These things would keep you alive. Richard knew this. And yet, somehow, he’d still allowed that bitch to distract him again.

Something that felt like a runaway brick wall plowed into his body with enough force to lift him off his feet. For a moment he was pressed tightly against a mass of rock-hard muscle, being carried by the momentum of whatever had slammed into him, and it was how a bird must feel right after it had flown full force into the grill of a speeding car. But then he was soaring through the air, the city nothing more than a streaked blur around him, falling and flying all at the same time, struggling to recapture the breath that had been forced from his lungs by the collision.

His back skidded across the road and the machete flew from his hand, clinking faintly as it tumbled over the asphalt. Before he’d even had a chance to roll, something solid and heavy crashed down onto his groin, something that felt like a boulder dropped from above; Richard doubled over as nauseating pain radiated from testicles that now throbbed like twin hearts. He instinctively cupped his hands over the tender area but then fresh pain exploded in his lip as the coppery taste of blood flooded his mouth. Again and again something pounded on his lips and nose with flat, wet smacks and he was vaguely aware of a face leering down at him, eyes ablaze with the thrill of the hunt and lips pulled back into a sneer of brutal enjoyment.

Richard’s fingers grasped for a handful of hair but it felt short and bristly, as if it had been shaven close to the scalp, and they found no purchase. He went for the eyes instead, raking at his attacker with fingers hooked into talons; but the man threw his head back slightly and the fingernails simply peeled curls of skin from the cheeks instead.

And still the fists rained down like a pair of pistons: hammering, bashing, pummeling, jarring teeth loose from gums, shattering bone in the bridge of the nose, spraying droplets of blood as the knuckles connected again and again with Richard’s battered face.

He writhed beneath the man, trying to squirm free even as his left hand groped blindly along the gritty street, searching for the familiar handle of his weapon. But this dude was thick, as dense and hard as an iron girder, and from that first moment of impact he’d refused to give up the edge that the element of surprise had blessed him with. He was a fucking death engine, fueled by high octane adrenaline and concentrated testosterone: no need for guns or knives or clubs; no need for anything, really… except those two solid fists wrapped in boxer’s tape and their lethal fury.

Bursts of darkness had begun to blossom in Richard’s field of vision, like time-lapse flowers unfurling their black petals in a world that seemed slightly blurry and out of focus. Small at first, no bigger than pinpoints. But as his face continued to absorb the shock of each new punch, they fed on the pain like it was fertilizer, growing in size and number.

All of the storybooks had it wrong. Death wasn’t some gangly skeleton enshrouded in a black cloak: no… the true bringer of darkness was a juiced-up meat head in a yellow wife beater and spandex shorts that barely contained the muscles bulging against them. And he was simply going to kneel on Richard’s chest as if it were a prayer rug and offer up blood sacrifices to whatever dark god he served. He would usher his victim into the inky waters of the river Styx and Richard’s short reign as Lord of this World would come to an untimely end.

And it was all her fault.

That stupid, distracting little cunt.

Polly.

CHAPTER TWELVE

The brightness of the lights reflected off the cleaver, momentarily blinding Polly again with the unexpected glare. She squinted her eyes and pressed her face into her inner elbow as she opened her hand and allowed the tool to jangle against the street. She’d actually forgotten that she was holding it. No wonder they wouldn’t let her pass. It was all some big misunderstanding. Raising both arms into the air, palms facing outward, she turned in a slow circle.

“No,” she yelled out, “it’s okay. I’m not one of them. See? I’m not armed! It’s okay!”

Once she’d made a complete revolution, she took a few steps forward. Very slowly. Very deliberately. She didn’t know how well these guys were trained. Were they soldiers hardened by the sand and heat of distant deserts? Or green recruits who might get spooked at any sudden movement and reflexively pull the trigger on an unarmed woman? No sense taking chances.

“I don’t want any trouble! I just want to leave, okay?”

Her feet were mere inches away from the yellow stripe. The stripe which had quickly become a sort of magical barrier she had to cross. As if none of the insanity within the city could possibly spill over that bright paint. Just beyond was freedom. Just beyond was hope.

Do not attempt to cross the yellow line!

She stopped in her tracks and her wrists swiveled slightly on her raised hands as if in an exaggerated shrug. She didn’t understand… maybe they hadn’t heard her.

“I’m not one of them!”

She yelled louder this time and her voice echoed through the silence.

“My name is Polly Wainwright… I don’t have any weapons on me! I just want out of here, okay? You don’t know what it’s like in there….”

She’d taken another step as she pleaded and there was a salvo of clicks as the line of soldiers snapped their weapons to full attention. For some reason, the phrase lock and load flirted through her mind. But this was crazy. They had to have heard her that time. There was no way they could be mistaking her for one of them. No, she’d explained everything, had shown them that she posed no threat.

Glancing down, she saw that the tip of her left shoe had edged up against the border of the stripe in the road.

I repeat… do not attempt to cross the yellow line! Deadly force has been authorized, ma’am.

She shuffled back several steps without even thinking about it. The soldiers, however, kept their weapons trained on her.

This was fucking insane! They were supposed to protect her. They were the damn army for Christ’s sake!

“I just want to leave!”

Her voice quivered as she yelled and she felt frustration and fatigue begin to work its way through her body. Her muscles felt as if they were dissolving, liquefying with each passing second, and she’d begun to tremble as if suddenly afflicted with palsy.

“I just want out!

No longer capable of supporting the weight of her own body, her knees buckled and she fell to the ground, kneeling before the almighty yellow stripe as if in supplication. She realized that her cheeks were warm and wet, that tears were streaming from her eyes like water from a ruptured main. The trembles had turned to outright shaking now and, oddly enough, her teeth were chattering as she wept. As if she were out in the freezing cold instead of a warm, spring night.

“I don’t understand….”

Her voice was softer now, something just above a whisper and every few syllables were punctuated by a sniffle or sob as her shoulders convulsed with tears. It didn’t matter, though. She wasn’t really talking to them anyway.

“Why won’t they let me leave? Why? I just want to go….”

Her palms were tightly pressed into her eye sockets and she rocked back and forth as she slowly shook her head. She took a deep gasp of air through her mouth and held it for a moment, picturing the healing white light her Yoga instructor always had them visualize. But no. That wasn’t right. She tried inhaling through her nose, the snot bubbling and gurgling as she felt her diaphragm balloon out.

That’s it… breathe.

She imagined the white light seeping into the tension in her muscles, loosening its grip on her body like salt dissolving in warm water. Diffusing through her chest and abdomen. Warm, like the rays of the sun. Soothing. Relaxing.

Now exhaling, slowly through the mouth, envisioning a dark plume carrying away all the toxins, all the filth, all the poison that had built up in her soul. Inhale. Hold. Repeat.

A beach, the waves of the sea crashing against the breakers. Gulls overhead, soaring high in the cloudless sky, riding the currents of the wind. The scent of the ocean carried on the breeze, salty and invigorating; warm sand between her bare toes… sunlight sparkling on deep blue waters as if billions of miniature diamonds were surfing the peaks and troughs.

Exhale.

Repeat.

Polly opened her eyes.

Had they really just stood there? Watching her break down without so much as a word? Without even a fucking sound?

They were just as heartless and calloused as any of the savages back in town. Perhaps more so. At least those running rampant through the streets were doing what they wanted to do, however fucked up those desires may be. At least they weren’t simply following orders like good little sheep.

Fuck these people. There were other ways out of town. They couldn’t be blocking them all could they?

She stood with as much dignity as she could muster, taking a moment to brush the dust off the knees of her jeans and push the hair back from her eyes.

“I hope you’re all so very proud of yourselves.”

Her voice was even and cold. No hints of frustration. No confusion. No fear.

Not anymore.

“And I hope you remember this moment clearly. When you hear that your wives and girlfriends, your sisters… your mothers…. When you hear how they were cut down and left to die on the wrong side of some fucking yellow line. I hope you remember this well.”

The ranks were as silent as a church at midnight; but she was sure she’d planted a seed in at least one of their minds. A seed that would hopefully bloom into compassion. She may not be the one to harvest the crop she’d planted; but if at least one innocent person was able to make it to safety because of her… well, then it would have all been worth it, wouldn’t it?

She walked over to where she’d dropped her cleaver and was beginning to stoop down when there was finally a response.

Do not attempt to pick up that weapon!

Seriously?

“They’ll kill me, you know.”

A statement of fact. She was beyond begging now, beyond pleading.

I repeat, do not attempt to pick up your weapon….

So that’s how it was. That was their master plan: just let everyone kill each other off until order was restored to a depopulated city.

But it wouldn’t work. She knew it wouldn’t. She’d seen the savagery, the brutality, the determination these people invested in their violence. In some ways, it almost seemed to be a matter of pride for them. Before long, this wave of mutilation would come crashing down over their precious yellow line and they would find themselves being swept away in the torrents of the flood.

So be it.

She stood to her full height and glared into lights that cast long shadows behind her.

Strong.

Defiant.

Determined.

“Okay, then. But just remember… I didn’t want this. I only wanted to leave. You created me. You. Remember that.”

Polly turned her back on the blockade and faced the city. She watched as the flames danced on the horizon, as black smoke billowed into the air like the wings of unholy angels. She listened to the distant sound of gunfire.

She had no choice. If she wanted to make it out alive, she had to go back into the fray.

But she was different now.

Changed.

She knew that to survive the gauntlet of butchery and death she was preparing to go through meant that, in a way, she had died out here on the other side of the yellow line. She’d tried to give the soldiers the gift of compassion because she knew that would be a luxury she wouldn’t be able to afford. Not anymore.

To survive them, she would have to become one of their own.

No retreat, no surrender.

It was the only way.

“Bring it on, baby.” she whispered to the burning city. “Momma’s comin’ home.”

<p>CHAPTER THIRTEEN</p>

Somewhere close by another explosion rocked the city. This one sounded big, like maybe the Gas-n-Go had given up its pumps to a Molotov or out of control car. Richard could feel the shock waves tremble through the street and into his back, almost as if a small earthquake had shaken the very foundations of an already devastated city.

The behemoth he was pinned beneath ducked slightly as his head snapped to the side. At the same time, Richard had yanked hard on the yellow wife-beater and the shirt tore from the man’s muscular frame; as the shirt was ripping, the juicer’s arms flew up, forming the shape of an X above his head as his eyes flinched shut. It was a move of pure instinct: trying to reflexively shield his face from the possibility of white-hot shrapnel, the body builder had opened himself to a much more real, and deadly, threat.

Before the brute could recover from his mistake, Richard grabbed his own wrist with the other hand, squeezing so tightly that his entire right arm quivered. Tensing the muscles from shoulder to wrist, he rolled his body forward and upward with a quick snap. His elbow and upper forearm slammed into Meathead’s throat and he heard a sound like a sharp gag as the man’s Adams apple took the brunt of the blow.

Reflexes again. More instinct as the huge bastard dropped his hands to his own throat, wrapping them around the cord-like veins and muscles as if choking himself. He struggled for a gulp of air, but Richard could feel the momentum building, could feel the battle swinging to his favor. He formed his first two fingers into a stiff V and thrust them forward, directly into Meathead’s unprotected eyes. There was a slight squish, a second of something cold and wet on the tips of his fingers; the body builder’s hands moved again, this time pressing the palms against his now useless eyes as he bellowed in pain. Exposing the throat again.

Wrapping his hands around the back of the man’s skull, Richard pulled him forward. At the same time, he bent at the waist as if trying to sit up. Instead, he sunk his teeth into Meathead’s bottom lip and bit down with a grinding motion.. The idiot tried to pull away and there was a wet, ripping sound as a once solid piece of flesh was reduced to nothing more than a bloody strand.

Keeping his teeth clamped down, Richard jerked his head left and right like a dog shaking the life out of a snared rabbit. Meathead was screaming now, scrambling backward across the street as blood gushed from his ravaged mouth. Richard spat the gristle out of his mouth and stood slowly; his eyes scanned his surroundings methodically, covering each inch of street until they finally rested upon what he was looking for.

After retrieving the machete, he walked calmly toward Meathead. He stood over the blind, lipless freak and smacked the flat part of the blade against his palm as if it were a paddle.

“Nothing personal…”

His voice was thick and raspy, partly from the smoke that snaked through the avenues and alleys, partly from exertion.

“… but this is going to get ugly real fuckin’ quick..”

He didn’t have time to do all the things he really wanted. He had to be satisfied with hacking off the arms and legs… but not quickly. Oh no, that would have been too good for the fallen giant. So he held back, not swinging the machete with as much force as he could, sinking the blade only a few inches into flesh and bone at a time. Not so much dismembering the body but rather hacking it to pieces, one carefully placed blow at a time. Now the once-mighty warrior looked more like some freak attraction from a traveling sideshow of the macabre: a bloody gaping maw where a mouth should have been, the corners extended almost back to the jawline from where the blade of the machete had been slowly drawn across what remained of Meathead’s lips; no real limbs to speak of, just jagged stumps that — for a while — had caused the man-like creature to kind of rock back and forth, as if he were attempting to roll away.

But now Richard could feel a pressure growing around his eyes, like hundreds of tiny hands that had been dipped in molten glass forcing the skin to puff outward. They were slowly narrowing, becoming nothing more than mere slits, and if he didn’t do something to relieve the pressure soon he knew they would eventually close up completely. And then he’d be left, stumbling through the streets like a sacrificial cow….

He’d considered using the machete, but was wary of that prospect. Despite the workout he’d given it, the blade was still extremely sharp. If he accidentally cut too deep, it could be very bad; and then he’d have no one to blame but himself when the unseen executioner came to finish him off. No, he needed something smaller, a razor blade perhaps. Wasn’t that what they always used in the boxing movies Jane had hated with such a passion? Yeah, he was pretty sure it was.

Directly across the street from the inchworm that had once been Meathead was a brownstone. One of those apartments had to have a razor blade somewhere in a medicine cabinet. Or even a little paring knife. Something. Anything.

He staggered across the street and necessity forced him to rely on his ears, rather than peripheral vision, to safeguard himself. He could hear people shouting, probably a couple blocks away, a woman’s shrill scream crying out like the sound of a cougar in a concrete jungle; a slight breeze that had picked up litter which rattled across the street to his right. His own footsteps slapping against the pavement. His own heartbeat.

He started up the front steps of the brownstone, guiding himself with the smooth iron railings by his side. For a moment, he felt as if he’d stepped out of his life and been plopped down in the middle of a slasher film (which he’d always secretly enjoyed, despite what Jane considered to be a reprehensible lack of artistic merit.) It was almost like he was looking at the world through the oblong eye-holes of a mask with everything else surrounded by a perfect field of darkness. The raspy sound of his breath. The wooden door looming closer and closer with each step. Real John Carpenter type of shit.

By the time he got to the top of the stairs, Richard had to physically tilt his head down just to see the doorknob. But something was off with his depth perception and it seemed like he had to reach much further than he should have before he was able to turn it and open the door.

The inside of the brownstone was dark and quiet; even under optimal conditions, it would have been hard to make out details in the gloom. But his eyes now felt as if the skin around them were pulsating in perfect synchronicity with his heart, each throb sending needles of pain through his cheeks and brow. So much darkness now that he could barely make out the door with the little gold numbers on it. 1A? 1B maybe? Not that it mattered. As long as there was a razor. And as long as he could still see to find it.

If it had been like looking through a mask before, now it was more like peering through the slightly raised slat of a venetian blind. He couldn’t waste time checking to see whether or not the door was unlocked. Best to assume it wasn’t. He angled his body toward the door and then ran with every ounce of strength he could summon. Part of him worried that with the depth perception problem he simply might slam into the immovable wall but, as it turned out, that wasn’t an issue.

His shoulder hit the door like a battering ram. There was a sharp crack, a metallic ting as if something metal had broken off, and the door was flying open as he tripped over his own feet and fell onto the plush carpet of the apartment.

He could hear a child crying, very close. A woman screaming over and over get out! Get out!

A smell like dirty socks from somewhere.

And then something like the crackle of a bug zapper. Or a mad scientist’s lab in one of those old RKO films. Something electric.

I swear to God I’ll shock your ass if you come any closer!

That crackle and zip sound again: he could perfectly envision the little blue sparks jumping back and forth between the posts as the woman pressed the button on her stun gun to illustrate her point.

He could picture the scene perfectly, but that was it.

His eyes had finally swollen completely shut.

Richard was blind.

<p>CHAPTER FOURTEEN</p>

She had to find a weapon. And fast. Judging from the progression of the fires, the battle was slowly making its way toward this side of town. There’d been a massive explosion earlier and she’d watched as this giant fireball shot into the sky like a demon breaking free from the gates of Hell. It had almost seemed to hang in the air for a moment, the flames roiling and lashing out at the smoke and ashes in the sky. It was easy to imagine the blaze igniting the atmosphere, spreading across the heavens like a giant pool of gasoline set ablaze, blotting out the darkness above until it would seem as if the entire city were simply encased within a globe of fire. Instead, the column below it seemed to be sucked up into the mushroom and then, in the time it took to blink, the fiery apparition was gone.

The buildings of the city had begun to close in around her again, the sounds of the fighting growing louder with each step. For a while she hadn’t even heard the gunfire. Or the screams. Or the screeching of tires and rumbling of engines. It had all been background noise, static on the radio dial of reality. Every now and then, however, it had come roaring back into sharp focus as if to remind her that she couldn’t allow anything to become commonplace. She had to consider every aspect of her environment if she wanted to make it out of this alive. So Polly tried to concentrate on the sounds, to use them as her guide. If they seemed to mostly be coming from the North End, then she would head west. If the growl of a motorcycle was steadily growing louder and higher in pitch, she would duck into the shadows until it passed. And this method seemed to be working rather well for her. She’d navigated through several blocks without so much as seeing a soul. Or, more importantly, without a soul seeing her.

Now she’d reached the corner of Bentley and Jefferson. Wasn’t that where that asshole Richard had gone that morning? To get the box of supplies? It had to be. She could just make out what looked to be yellow tape stretching into the distance along Jefferson. Two horizontal bands, spaced just far enough apart for a person to be able to stand comfortably between the two.

Fuckin’ yellow lines, man. If I never see another yellow line in my life, it’ll be too soon.

A sound in the alley to her right caught her attention and her head snapped to the side as her hands formed into tight fists. She didn’t bother calling out “is someone there?” like those ditsy bimbos in movies and books. Of course someone was there. The sound had quite obviously been the scuffling of feet.

From the shadows of the alley a woman emerged. She was wearing a tattered dress smeared with the same soot that darkened her cheeks and forehead. Her hair was a tangled mess, as if she had went to bed with wet hair, woke up, and went about her business without bothering to pass a comb through it. In her hands she carried a small bundle: what looked to be a fuzzy pink blanket with some sort of cartoon characters patterned on it; it was cradled in her arms at an upward angle and, through a gap in the blanket, Polly could just make out a round little forehead and tiny nose. Miraculously, it was sleeping through all of this. Which was probably a blessing, actually. The last thing this woman needed was a crying baby on her hands when she was trying to hide.

As the woman stepped closer, Polly could see streaks in the soot on her face. As if she’d been crying and the tears had cleared swaths of clean skin through the grime and grit.

“They turned you away too, didn’t they? Wouldn’t let you leave?”

Polly nodded her head but remained silent, allowing this stranger to do all the talking.

“I have a baby. A baby for crying out loud. I asked… I asked if I could lay her on the yellow line and walk away. If they could wait ’til I left and take her somewhere safe.”

The woman had a slumped and defeated look which deepened with every step, every word… almost as if the story was the only real substance she had left and the telling of it was slowly deflating her.

“They wouldn’t do it. Why wouldn’t they do it? Why wouldn’t they take my baby?”

Funny. This entire time Polly hadn’t even considered the children. Where were they in all this madness? Where they huddled into basements and closets, hiding from the monsters which rampaged just outside their walls? Were their bodies piled among the faceless dead? Or, God forbid, were they joining in on the mayhem, taking out one another just like their adult role models were doing?

“Why wouldn’t they save my baby?”

Now Jane, she probably would’ve thought of the children first thing. That’s just the way she was. And that’s probably what she’d meant when she kept muttering those poor, poor people as they watched the news. God that seemed like such a long time ago…. It was hard to believe it had only been a matter of hours. That things could deteriorate so quickly once set into motion.

“Will you take my baby?”

Polly finally spoke.

“I don’t want your baby, lady. You should get back in that alley and hide. You don’t want to be out here.”

The woman looked around her, as if taking in the street for the first time before turning back to face Polly, who was now only six or seven feet away.

“Why won’t you take my baby?”

“Look, I’ve got enough to worry about on my own without….”

The woman dropped the baby as if it were nothing more than a sack of potatoes and broke into a run. The lost and confused look had disappeared from her face, replaced with a contorted mask of rage.

“I want your fucking shoes, you blond haired bitch!”

There was something shiny in the woman’s left hand, the one that had been hidden under the baby. Something that looked sharp.

The woman thrust the blade at Polly but she, somehow, was ready for it. She’d never really trusted this lady from the start. Something about how she’d kept saying my baby but never actually mentioning the child by name.

Polly pivoted gracefully on her heel, spinning her body out of the path of the knife as easily as if it were something she did on a daily basis. At the same time, she latched onto the woman’s arm and twisted it backward and down in one steady movement. The blade sank into the woman’s stomach and she gasped as her mouth and eyes formed perfect circles. Her fingers loosened from the hilt just enough for Polly to gain control and yank it free.

With her other hand, Polly pushed the woman’s back hard enough that she stumbled and fell several feet away.

“I swear to God if you’re not on your feet and out of here within the next five seconds, I’m gonna cut a bitch to shreds.”

Not a threat. Just a simple, flat statement.

The woman staggered to her feet and scrambled away, hunched over and gripping her stomach as if she could somehow keep the blood from spilling out of her body.

Shit. The damn baby….

As it turned out, Polly didn’t have much to worry about in that regard. What she hadn’t been able to see in the semi-darkness was that the baby’s face and lips were a subtle shade of blue. What looked to be the terrycloth belt of a bathrobe had been tied so tightly around the infant’s little neck that it had practically burrowed into the skin. The poor thing.

She couldn’t just leave it laying in the middle of the street like some piece of rubbish tossed from a passing car. It was true that she knew there was no place for compassion in her heart, not now at least. But she was still human, damn it. And it was the type of animal who did this that didn’t deserve her mercy; the kind who would murder the perfectly innocent and then use its body as nothing more than a prop in some fucked up ruse.

She could just make out the outline of a carriage in the shadows of the alley. The least she could do, then, was to place the baby back into the pram. It wasn’t a proper burial but in this city it was probably the closest anybody was going to get. So she laid the child’s stiff body down gently, next to a diaper bag overflowing with bottles and rattles and…. cigarettes?

She could see the shiny foil reflecting in the bottom of the bag, the red and white logo on the crumpled pack, the perfectly round and white tips of the filters. Like a starving woman who’d just found a candy bar, she snatched them from the bag. And where there’s smokes, there’s fire right? Yes! Just underneath a stack of diapers was a little orange lighter. God, she could really use a smoke right now.

She shook one of the cigarettes loose from the pack and placed the filter between her lips, relishing the firmness of the filter between her pursed lips.

But wait… if she lit up out here the flick of the lighter would be a beacon. The winking ember each time she took a drag would betray her presence in the shadows. Hell, the smell of the smoke might even draw in any crazy mother fuckers who might be lurking nearby. True, there were probably about twelve different kinds of smoke hanging over town: burning rubber, oil fires, gasoline fires, natural gas fires… but she would never underestimate the ability of someone who was really jonesing for a puff to be able to separate that particular smell from all the others. Hell, how many times had she tried to quit? And it was the smell, every time, that brought her running back.

So not here, then. Somewhere more secluded. Where she couldn’t be seen. Or smelled. Where she could enjoy half the damn pack if she chose to. But where?

She pictured a map of the city in her head, laying out the grids as best as she could and matching them up with landmarks. What was she on now? Bentley. Just a little past Jefferson. If she kept going up a couple blocks then she should come to 17th Street. And 17th led Oak which led to Hoover Elementary. Perfect. She could sit in the hallway, far from any windows, and smoke to her heart’s content. And she couldn’t imagine that there would be anything in a school that the rioters and looters would actually want. Not when there was an entire city to sack.

So it was settled then: Hoover Elementary. True, it would be a circuitous route. In a normal situation it would’ve been quicker and easier to head back the way she’d just come and loop back around. But she had a feeling that if she took the easier path, she’d be walking into her own death. It was an unshakable feeling somewhere deep in the pit of her gut. And if there was one thing she’d learned out here, it was that you had to trust your instincts.

She just hoped that the hunch she was allowing to guide her wasn’t leading her astray. That it really was the voice of instinct… and not the silver-tongued whisper of addiction coaxing her into a slow and painful death.

<p>CHAPTER FIFTEEN</p>

Richard still gripped the machete in his hand but he knew that if he tried to use it, he would simply be swinging blindly. The screaming kid made his eardrums tremble with its high pitched keen which, in turn, made it hard to judge exactly where the woman’s voice was coming from. There was a good chance he would swing the blade only to have 700,000 volts zapped into his body. Which would debilitate him completely. It was a chance he couldn’t take.

“Look, I need a place to hide, they’re crazy out….”

“Get the fuck out of my house!”

She wouldn’t hear it. Wouldn’t even give him a chance to try to sweet talk his way out of this one like he’d done with Jane. But, of course, Jane had wanted to believe… and that made all the difference in the world.

From somewhere on the street he heard the sound of a gunshot, followed by heavy return fire. And suddenly he heard the shattering of glass, probably a window, the thunk of something burying itself into the plaster wall beside him.

This caused the kid to really let loose with a series of short, shrill shrieks. Then footsteps padding across the carpet, someone running across the door toward the open door, toward him. Someone small.

“Ashley, no!”

Using the sound of the kid’s fear to guide him, Richard’s hand shot out into the darkness with the speed of a striking snake. He snatched a tiny ankle, heard a thud as the child fell to the floor, heavier steps running toward him, the mother hysterical, screaming, crackling her stun gun again and again, getting closer.

But he was quick. So damn quick. His hands scrambled up the little girl’s body, found pigtails, the head, the throat… all while sitting up at the same time. He held the girl tightly, his arm encircling her small neck as she tried to wriggle out of his grasp.

“Back off! I swear to God, I’ll snap this little bitch’s neck like a fuckin’ twig!”

The heavier footsteps stopped immediately. The kid was screaming mommy mommy mommy like some kind of chant and he tightened his arm slightly, just enough to cut off some — but not all — of the girl’s oxygen. Just enough to lower the damn volume a bit.

“You let her go, you son of a bitch! You let her go now!”

“Drop the taser!”

“Let my daughter go, you bastard!”

“Drop the fuckin’ taser or I swear you’ll be burying this little girl!”

He heard something thud to the floor. When the woman spoke her voice was an odd mixture of fear and anger. He could practically feel her seething, probably wishing she could claw his throat out with a fork.

“Look, I don’t want to hurt you! Either of you.”

He dropped his voice, made it sound as if he were on the verge of tears.

“But I will… if I have to. I don’t want to, but I will.”

Heavy breathing from across the room. The little girl crying now, her attempts at resistance losing some of the force with the restricted air flow.

“I found a way out… out of town. I was going back for my wife, Janey, when these guys jumped me. They beat the hell out of me. Bruised me up real bad. I’m friggin’ blind here!”

He pulled his teeth back into a grimace that he hoped looked like anguish. Lord knows he wouldn’t be able to squeeze out a tear, no matter how hard he tried.

The woman however sounded as if she were crying, however.

“Just… let my daughter go. Please, don’t hurt my baby….”

“Why the hell would I want to hurt her? Damn lady, I just want to get back to my own little girl. Polly. I just want to get back to her and Jane and get them the hell out of this shit hole.”

He forced his voice to sound excited.

“You can come with us. You and your daughter. I can keep us all safe, I promise. You just gotta help me and I can get us all out of this mess.”

Silence in the apartment, except for the little girl’s sobbing and Mom’s labored breathing. Then the sound of feet again, pacing across the floor. Probably wringing her hands.

“You let Ashley go… you let Ashley go and I’ll help you.”

“Lady, if I let this little girl go you’re gonna zap me with that gun of yours….”

“I won’t!”

“How do I know that?”

“Please, I promise….”

“You help me, then I’ll let her go. Then maybe you’ll see that you can trust me and we’ll all get out of this alive.”

More pacing in the darkness; he could almost taste the uncertainty in the air. The fear and trepidation.

Finally a small, soft voice:

“What do you need me to do?”

Richard looked out at the street through the bedroom window, really appreciating vision for probably the first time in his life. Which was one of the best things about The Change: it made you see everything in a different light, to cherish all the little things you used to take for granted in your day to day, humdrum life. The beers he’d just chugged down, for example, were the best ones he’d ever tasted: ice cold, the almost yeasty taste of the barely and hops… the way it seemed to fizz down the back of his throat. And that was an off brand, for Christ’s sake.

He took a long slow breath and adjusted the gauze that had been wrapped around his forehead to keep the blood from dripping down into his eyes.

The woman, whose name he’d learned had been Donna, had done a good job. He was worried that her hands might tremble, that she might accidentally slip and cut his eyelid with the razor. Especially since he was sitting there with her little girl locked in a death grip. But perhaps because of this, and not in spite of it, she was extremely steady. He’d warned her that if she tried anything funny with the razor little Ashley would be the one to pay the price. And apparently she’d believed him.

When the blood drained out, it felt like a great pressure had suddenly been removed from his head. Donna had went to the kitchen to get the beers out of the icebox, saying that he needed something cold on his face to help ease the swelling and pain even more. By this time, the blurriness was clearing and he could see the bathroom he’d been led into. White grouted tiles, a little toothbrush holder held by suction cups to the mirror above the sink, blue fish decals on the tank of the toilet she’d sat him upon.

Once he heard the refrigerator door open, he’d snapped Ashley’s neck. Quickly. Cleanly. Silently. He lifted her body and placed it in the tub, closing the curtain as softly as he could.

The machete, of course, hadn’t been brought into the bathroom with them. So instead, he removed the lid from the back of the toilet tank and draped a towel over where it had been as a disguise. After blowing out the candle and plunging the room into darkness, he positioned himself behind the door, working out the angles that would allow him to see the mirror without being seen himself.

When he first saw her, he almost gasped. She looked so much like Polly. A Polly who had let herself go perhaps. A Polly who drank a little too much beer, whose already round face had taken on an almost puffy look and whose belly was no longer tight and firm. And her hair was cut shorter too but it was the same color, had the same little ringlets.

He’d must have won Donna’s trust over completely with the stories of his life with Jane. She walked into the darkened bathroom without hesitation, her voice registering confusion but not fear or panic.

“Rick? Ashley?”

He breathed in long and slow, relishing the memory of how the tank lid felt as it smashed over her head. That dull thud. The jolt that traveled up his arms as a crack spread across the heavy porcelain.

She’d fallen to the floor and the back of her head was almost instantly drenched in blood. But she was still alive, existing somewhere on the borderlands of consciousness, moaning softly every few seconds as her fingers twitched.

He’d drug her into the bedroom then, stripped her, and had his way, timing the punches to her face perfectly with the thrusts of his hips, calling out Polly’s name over and over as the rhythm gained in speed and ferocity.

When he’d finished, she was motionless. Not even the slightest rise and fall of her chest. He’d dressed then and raided the refrigerator, polishing off leftover meatloaf and downing the four beers that were still in the little side compartment.

It was good to be King.

To take what was rightfully his.

On the street, he saw a woman slinking by. Black shoes, black pants, and shirt. For a moment, he simply stood there with his jaw hanging open. It couldn’t be. The clothes were too tight, the t-shirt too plain. It couldn’t be.

But it was.

Polly.

He dropped the beer he was holding and ran for the front door, his heart hammering so loudly that he half expected it to break a rib.

Donna had been fun, but she was nothing more than a cheap substitute. The off brand.

No, what he craved was the real thing.

And now he knew it was right within his grasp.

<p>CHAPTER SIXTEEN</p>

She’d broken a window with a large rock that she’d found out near the playground, making sure that she was well hidden from view of the street. She’d had the feeling that she was being followed, that someone was tracking her as if she were a deer in the forest. But every time she’d try to steal a glance over her shoulder nothing was there. She even tried to catch a glimpse in the side view mirror of a parked car, hoping this little trick would reveal whether or not someone was slipping through the shadows behind her. But that disclosed nothing as well, so she’d continued on and chalked it up to nerves.

The neighborhood surrounding the school was chiefly residential which, in turn, meant it had been mostly spared from the looting. There were a few cars with spider web cracks stretching across their windshields, some broken glass littering the sidewalk, a couple of bodies lying in the street; but it was nothing like the other parts of town where the stores were all clustered together and ripe for the picking.

She’d climbed into the darkness of the school and made her way forward carefully, working her way through the labyrinth of rooms until she was in one of the halls. It was so quiet that her footsteps echoed as loudly as if she were wearing heavy boots. No one came running. No doors flew open to reveal murderous rage. But why would they? Who they hell would be in an elementary school at this time of night anyway?

She lit her cigarette, feeling slightly guilty when she noticed the sign on the wall that announced tobacco was prohibited on school property. But that guilt was quickly assuaged when her eyes had become better adjusted to the gloom: when she realized that the hallway was lined on either side with bright yellow tape.

Son of a bitch….

Polly stood, took the last drag from her cigarette, and crushed it out under her heel.

She would find somewhere else then.

Richard’s initial instinct had been to charge at her like a mad bull. To run her down the same way Meathead had done him. But he fought this urge, savoring instead the little game he was playing. She, the dainty little mouse, who kept looking back over her shoulder: afraid and helpless in this big ’ole maze of a city. He, the stealthy cat in the shadows: quick and slinky, master of the domain, perfectly bred for stealth and attack.

After several blocks, he realized that — in his haste to follow her — he’d forgotten to grab his machete when he’d left Donna’s brownstone. But no worries. He could go back for it later. It wasn’t as if he would actually need it. Not for her.

Around the same time it dawned upon him where she was heading. The elementary school. Wasn’t that just like a woman? To worry about the little kiddies when she should be more concerned with saving her own skin?

Oh man, this was going to be too easy.

The classroom was standard issue. Block walls painted some neutral color she’d never bothered to learn the name of. Row after row of desks perfectly lined up. Bookshelves. Learning based posters on the walls and a big chalkboard with the name Mrs. Haversham scrawled across it.

She’d plopped down into the teacher’s chair and looked at the day planner laid out on top of the desk. PTA meeting, 7:30 PM Wednesday. Field Trip-Zoo, 8:30 AM, two weeks from now. Sorry about your luck, Mrs. Haversham, but it looks like we’ve had to clear your calendar. Permanently.

As she swiveled back and forth in the chair, Polly toyed with the little American flags that had been poised on one corner of the desk. They were the type that had two poles jutting out at opposite angles from a single wooden base. Probably made in Taiwan.

Maybe she should rest here for a while. Wait for daylight and plan her next move. Smoke all she wanted or for as long as the pack held out.

Yeah, that might be for the best. There would probably be a lot less assholes to deal with out there by morning.

She stood and walked to the door of the classroom, placed the knife on the little bookshelf beside it, and turned the lock.

She wondered what had happened to Jane? Had her friend made it? Was she still back at the apartment? Or was she running, hiding, trying to find a way out of town?

Polly hoped she wasn’t dead. Jane was one of those rare people you met in life. The kind who actually take time to listen to what you’re saying, to show a sincere interest in how you’ve been doing.

But she couldn’t think about that now. Jane was a distraction. Just have a smoke and try to let it go.

He could see her moving about through the frosted glass of the door. Room 114. She’d just turned and was walking away, her silhouette growing fainter by the second. Probably locked it.

Poor, simple Polly.

Still believing that mere doors and windows were enough to keep her safe.

It was time to teach her a lesson.

One which she would never forget.

Polly had just lit the cigarette when she saw it. A man-shaped shadow outside the door. Dark. Hulking. Growing larger as it approached.

Shit.

Thoughts of Jane had distracted her and she’d left the fucking knife on that little bookshelf. She sprung from her chair at the same moment the glass in the window exploded inward in tiny little chunks that looked like crystalline boulders. They rattled against the floor, not crashing like normal glass, and the elbow that had smashed its way through straightened into an arm. An arm which easily flicked the lock and swung the door open.

Before her stood what appeared to be a monster. Its face was lumpy, bloody and battered beyond belief with lips swollen and split, a nose zigzagging at odd angles, hair matted with gore in some places, slick with blood in others. It’s clothes looked like some sort of tattered fatigues that had been cut and abraded to the point where there seemed to be more holes than fibers. For all intents and purposes, this thing looked like the victim of a fatal car crash who had just decided to pick up and walk away.

It stepped into the room, breathing so heavily she could see its shoulders rise and fall.

At the same time she took a step backward as she glanced around the room, trying to plot a way to circle around and get her hands on that knife.

“Looking for an escape route?”

The voice sounded as if it were speaking through a mouthful of mush. Which wasn’t surprising considering the state said mouth was in. But there was something familiar about that voice….

“No escape for you… not this time.”

She took another step backward, but her eyes stayed trained on the monstrosity before her. Watching for the slightest movement that would indicate the start of an attack.

“Pretty, pretty Polly.”

She gasped.

“Richard?”

The classroom filled with laughter.

“No, baby. I told you. Richard’s dead. Call me Rick. Or Dick. You like Dick, don’t you Polly? I know you do.”

More laughter again.

Seriously creepy deja-vu.

How the hell had he found her?

Her heart thundered like a herd of galloping zebras.

“I was hoping you’d have a message for me.” Richard said. “What a shame.”

He seemed to be speaking directly to her tits. Or maybe her shirt. But why would he do that?

Because he’s bat-shit crazy, dearie. Look at him. You didn’t even recognize him at first. How the hell do you think he got all fucked up like that? Crazy….

Richard stepped further into the room and he seemed to grow larger with each step. It was obvious that he felt powerful, completely in control of the situation. And, in a way, he was. She knew she didn’t have the physical strength to fend off his attacks when they came. She’d been down that road already. No, she needed some way to get to that knife. Some weakness she could exploit.

“I don’t know whether to fuck you and kill you,” Richard said, the words slightly slurred through his busted lips, “or kill you and fuck you.”

His laughter filled the room again as if he’d just told the joke of a lifetime. But it ended as abruptly as if he’d choked it off.

“But maybe I’m thinking I should just outright kill you.”

Polly had backed up to the point that she’d bumped against Mrs. Haversham’s desk.

Richard came closer still and she could now see the large bulge in the front of his pants.

“I’m thinking that might just be the thing to do, you little cock-tease bitch.”

That was it. His weakness. Now, she only had to work it to her advantage. She pushed her revulsion deep down within herself, tucked it away in a cold little spot somewhere behind her stomach.

She slowly wetted her lips with the tip of her tongue.

“Now, dearie, you don’t really want to do that do you? Not before you’ve had a little taste of this.”

She slid her hands seductively along the curves of her breasts, down her sides, to her hips.

There was a sharp intake of breath from Richard and he stopped for a moment.

“I shouldn’t have fought you back there, but I was scared. Because of Jane, see….”

“Jane’s dead.”

The statement was so cold, so as-a-matter-of-fact that for a moment her mind balked. But she knew she had to keep going, had to play this scene out to its final conclusion. They words were hard to say, but necessary.

“Good. Now there’s nothing… no one to get in our way, Richard, and…”

“Richard is dead!” he bellowed.

“I’m sorry, baby. I’m sorry. I’ll call you whatever you want.”

She tried her best to act simpering, subservient. Totally enthralled like a groupie in the presence of a rock star.

Sitting down on the edge of the desk she slipped out of the t-shirt and tossed it to the side. Licked her lips again and leaned back on the cool wood as her fingertips traced circular patterns over her bra. This had better work, God damn it.

“Come on, baby. Let’s do it. I want you inside me.”

For a moment Richard seemed to teeter on indecision. He started forward but then stopped. Started and stopped.

She moaned, really turning up the juice on her performance as she arched her back slightly.

“Oh god, I’m so wet…”

One hand over the mouth. Giggle. Shy. Coy.

“I need you, Richard. I need a big strong man like you in me.”

“I told you, call me….”

“I’ll call you anything you want, sugar, just do me. Do me hard.”

She’d finally pushed him over the edge. He came rushing at the desk and Polly held her breath, waiting to see if he were buying into all of this. Or if he really was coming to kill her.

He towered above her, staring down, practically panting through his nose, eye ablaze with some strange glow she’d only seen that one time before. In the kitchen….

His hand balled into a fist which he pulled up to chest level and his nostrils flared.

But then the hand opened and he was squeezing her breast so roughly it felt as if he were attempting to rip it off her chest.

“Be gentle.” she whispered.

“No. I’ll be whatever I want. Do whatever I want. Which is why I am God and you just another little whore to serve my needs.”

He lowered his face toward her chest, wanting to smell that scent… the wildflowers and spring rain. Never noticing her hand as it crept across the surface of the desk.

“Richard?”

It was a light, sing-song tone but anger flared within him. Fuck it. He should just kill the cunt now.

“I told you, call me… “

His bellow morphed into a scream as Polly rammed the ends of the little flags directly into his eyes. The sharp tips, like tiny spears, ripped into the tissue easily and they were spaced apart just enough so that each one plunged into a separate socket. Blood and some sort of milky white fluid oozed from the twin wounds as Richard reeled backward, screaming in agony.

Ripping the flags out of his eyes, he stumbled about the room, tripping over desks, falling, struggling to regain footing as he slid on pencils and books and loose sheets of paper from the toppled desktops.

Polly skirted around the perimeter of the room, over to the little bookshelf. The knife felt cool and natural in her hand. She watched as Richard spun in drunken circles, screaming repeatedly: You bitch! You Fucking Bitch!

Timing it just right, Polly dashed in and lunged with the knife, driving it deep within his back, near the left kidney. She pulled it out, ducked low beneath his swinging arms, and grasping it’s hilt with both hand, plunged it upward with all her strength.

No words now, only animal howls of pain as Polly stabbed the blade into his groin. Over. And over. And over.

Richard fell to the floor, cupping the shreds of his mutilated manhood and Polly dropped down, driving one knee into his throat. And then the knife was nothing more than a silver blur as it sliced the tip of his nose, jabbed into his cheek, plunged into the gore-filled eye socket.

And then she realized she was screaming, too:

This is for Cody! This is for Jane! This is for me and this is for me and this is definitely for me!”

She stood and kicked him in the side of the head once. And then, pointing the knife downward, she dropped again and the blade disappeared deep into his chest.

He was moving so very slowly now. The life draining out of him. Sprays of blood coming up with his weak coughs. The wheezing sound of chest wounds as he struggled for breath.

She leaned in close to his ear and whispered.

“How bad do you want me now, Richard?”

He tried to say something, to form words, but there was only a gurgle from somewhere within his chest.

“Oh, I’m sorry…”

She gave the knife in his chest a little twist.

“…dick.”

She’d watched him die in that classroom. Had waited to make sure there was nothing he could do, no way that he could wiggle out of this one. But she didn’t have to wait long. By the time two cigarettes had been smoked down to the filter and crushed out on his stomach, he was dead.

Outside, the sun had just begun to rise above the horizon. Time to move on. There had to be a way out of this town. And she would find it, even if it meant swimming ten miles upriver. She would find a way out and would try to reclaim her old life again. Or at least as much of it as she could. Be she would never be the same. She had changed. She knew this.

She reached for the black t-shirt on the desk and was getting ready to pull it back over her shoulders when she paused.

Instead of putting it on, she laid it flat on Mrs. Haversham’s desk and walked to the blackboard where she picked up a piece of chalk. Returning to the desk she scrawled a quick message across the front of the shirt, bearing down so hard that she snapped the chalk twice.

Then she pulled the shirt over her head and walked away from Richard’s mutilated body. He had no eyes to read this particular message, no brain function to interpret it. But that was okay. It wasn’t meant for him anyway. None of it ever was.

Polly stepped out of the school and into the morning sunlight.

The long night was over and, oddly enough, the birds were singing.

But she could still hear the gunfire. Could still smell the smoke and see the out of control flames licking at the skyline.

And she walked toward this warren of chaos, armed only with her knife and a black t-shirt with words scrawled in chalk across the front. Words which gave her hope and reassured her that, no matter what happened, she would find a way to make it out of this hellhole alive. She was smart. She was strong. And her t-shirt said it al BE YOUR OWN HERO.

Bring it on, baby. Mamma’s comin’ home.”


CHAPTER EIGHT

<p>CHAPTER EIGHT</p>

The clouds in the sky seemed to dance with the distant glow of flames and the smell of smoke was thick and heavy. There weren’t any buildings that had been firebombed on this block yet, but — in the brief moments of silence that sometimes settled over the city –she could hear the crackling of fire, the roar of a hungry beast that devoured homes and buildings and left nothing more than blackened skeletons in its wake. But those instances of silence were few and far between. For the most part, the night was filled with the revving of engines, with gunshots and the tinkling of broken glass; screams and cries for help that went unanswered until they were abruptly cut off mid-sentence.

It was like the whole world had gone insane and she couldn’t help but wonder where the military had went. Where were the soldiers, the cops, the keepers of law and order? Shouldn’t they be out there in the streets, fighting their way through this urban nightmare and protecting those who simply wanted everything to go back to the way it was? But she hadn’t seen so much as a Humvee since she’d ran out of the apartment building, much less any type of organized retaliation against the anarchists who now seemed to hold the city in their grip.

What the hell was going on here?

Cody really was dead. She knew that now. At first she tried to tell herself that Richard was lying, that he was trying to gain control over her mind and emotions just as he’d tried to do with her body. But when she reached the bottom of the stairs Polly had seen his body sprawled across the foyer, sprawled in a pool of his own blood. She’d tried to look away but wasn’t quick enough: the images of broken bones jabbing through his flesh and clothes, the way his head seemed completely flat on the side facing the floor, the bizarre angles his legs and arms were splayed out in. All of these things had been burned into her consciousness and returned to haunt her visions each time she closed her eyes.

But she couldn’t think about that now. She had to push it all deep down inside, to swallow the pain and try to find something else to fill the void that threatened to cause her to implode. Cody would want her to survive, to go on, to fight tooth and nail if she must. And to do that she had to keep a clear head. There would be plenty of time for grief later, but for now she needed to focus. To stay alive.

After scrambling over the pile of bodies outside the main door, she’d made her way to the entrance of the apartment complex. The wrought iron gate that had once kept the world at bay was lying in the center of the street, the bars twisted and bent as if they had been pulled free with a force greater than a single person could ever manage. Poking her head around the corner, she saw a few people zigzagging back and forth through the darkness. But the majority of them seemed to be a block or so to the south. She could see their silhouettes, the way they dove through the air at one another, rolling across the ground as they grappled for control, bright bursts of gunfire, complete and utter chaos.

She slipped into the shadows along the wall and inched her way north instead, trying her best to stay low and quiet. She felt like her white shirt was as clear as a billboard, advertising her presence to anyone who might happen by. But she would need to replace it soon anyhow. During the struggle with Richard, it had been stretched and ripped to the point that it no longer really held its shape and kept trying to slide down over her breasts.

What the fuck had gotten into him anyway? He’d been like an animal, his lips pulled back into a snarl, that hungry look elongating his features, seeming to change him into a stranger right before her eyes. There was no doubt in her mind what he’d planned on doing to her. He’d made that abundantly clear. But how far would it have went? If she had decided to take the so-called easy road, like she did when she was a child, would he have been content to simply have his way and leave her crying on the table? Or did he have darker designs on her? If Jane hadn’t showed up when she did, God only knows how all of that would have turned out.

Richard. Sweet, unassuming Richard. It just didn’t make any sense. Sure, she’d caught him ogling her on few occasions and at the time had thought it was kind of funny. She and Jane had used to joke about it at the club, how he had this little schoolboy crush on her, how they could probably blow his friggin’ mind if she just slipped out of her clothes and hopped into bed with them one evening.

But there’d never been any indication, never any sign, that he was capable of something like this. And that, quite frankly, scared her more than anything else that had happened over the course of the last several weeks. How quickly and completely someone whom she thought she’d known could change. How he could go from being this mousy little office worker one minute to a drooling psychopath the next. And what exactly had happened to Cody? Had Richard been responsible for that as well? No, he couldn’t have been. The gashes in his shirt, the bloodstains that had seeped all across his torso… that was definitely murder. And she couldn’t believe that her best friend’s boyfriend could just outright kill one of their own. In cold blood, no less…

“Yeah,” she thought, “well yesterday you never woulda pegged him for a sicko fuckin’ rapist either, would you? Don’t put anything past that son of a bitch, girl.”

She knew her inner voice was right. The only person she could trust now was herself. Everything else had changed too much. Everything else was too damn confusing.

She picked her way through the remains of a plate glass window and into the darkness of Wilson’s Department Store. She could barely see racks overturned, clothes strewn about the floor, broken jewelry cases, and mannequins posed in vulgar positions. Finding another shirt in this mess would be tough, but it was necessary. She needed something dark and, as much as she hated to admit it, something tight fitting. She couldn’t afford for a skirt or a baggy t-shirt to get hung up on something if she needed to make a quick getaway. So she’d take her time and pick through the wreckage that used to be the women’s section, find exactly what she needed and go on from there.

The problem was everything seemed so much different in the dark. She’d been in this place a hundred times, had gotten some of her favorite bags from their purse and shoe section; but now she may have as well been picking her way along the dark side of the moon for all it was worth.

Somehow, Polly had found her way to the hardware section of all places. Talk about an alien environment…. However, she was pretty sure that this was on the opposite side of the store. At least it was in most shops, almost like they thought if they could put enough distance between husbands and wives the two sexes would never know how much money the other was spending until it was too late. So it seemed as if she’d been going in the wrong direction all along. She cursed to herself, took a step, and then felt as if the carpet of the world had suddenly been pulled out from beneath her feet. She pin-wheeled her arms, struggling to maintain balance, but — as one of her many t-shirts often reminded her — she had to obey gravity… it was the law. She fell to the floor and landed flat on her ass so hard that her spine jarred and her teeth clacked loudly.

At least she hadn’t tried to break her fall with her hands, though. It would’ve been very easy to snap a wrist that way. And that was definitely the last thing she needed.

“What the hell?” she mumbled as she picked herself up with a wince. “What the bloody hell?”

After a moment of searching, she found the culprit: a big, yellow screwdriver that had apparently spilled out of some overturned bin and then lurked in the shadows, just waiting to trip up an unsuspecting woman.

“You little bastard, you won’t be doing that again.”

Tucking the screwdriver into the waistband of her skirt, she began feeling her way through the darkness again. It was a bit easier this time as her eyes had started adjusting to the gloom. She began to recognize landmarks along the way: the cosmetic counter which was now covered in a fine layer of white dust, the beloved shoes and bags, the escalator which lead up into sleepwear.

Finally she was searching through the piles of clothing on the floor, looking for a simple black t-shirt and dark jeans in her size. As usual, finding something that actually fit her was like panning for gold; she had to sift through layer after layer of worthless silt until she finally found her treasure. Down near the very bottom of the heap. Of course.

Stripping off her ruined shirt almost felt like shedding a skin. It was as if Richard’s hands had somehow tainted the fabric; as if whatever sickness had changed him into a maniac had colonized the cotton and fibers, leaving the garment feeling dirty and almost greasy to the touch. She flicked it away between pinched fingers. The skirt had to go too. He’d been all over that piece, squirming his nasty body over it like some sort of legless fucking lizard, fumbling and pulling and yanking.

A shudder coursed through Polly’s body and she stepped out of the skirt, trying to put thoughts of the ordeal out of her head. The screwdriver clattered to the floor and she scooped it up like a bird of prey catching a rabbit.

“Oh no you don’t. Fool me once, shame on you and all that jazz.”

She was just reaching for the t-shirt when she heard something. A slight scuffling in the store. She froze in place and listened as she held her breath. For a moment everything was quiet and she had just begun to think it was her imagination when she heard it again. Furtive and sneaky… not an animal. A stray dog or cat wouldn’t care if anyone in the store heard them. Human? In all likelihood, yes.

Richard? He wouldn’t come looking for her would he? No, that was ridiculous. She’d seen Jane stab him with what looked to be a pretty good-sized knife. Even if, for whatever twisted reason might possess his deformed mind, he did want to come after her, Polly seriously doubted he was in any shape to do so. Hopefully, Jane had killed the bastard.

A whistle echoed through the silence of the store and it took a moment before she recognized the tune. It was the theme from the Andy Griffith Show. Now that it was obvious that she wasn’t alone in the store, her heart began to race so fast that should could feel her pulse twitch in her left eyelid.

“Hey girlie-girlie-girl….”

The voice was high pitched and slightly nasal. Definitely not Richard.

That, however, didn’t mean that this stranger was any less dangerous.

“I know you’re in here. I saw you come in.”

There was a loud clang of metal on metal, as if he had swung some sort of pipe and hit one of the beams that the price check machines were attached to.

“Come out and play, girlie-girlie-girl. Come to, Daddy.”

Another clang.

“It won’t hurt… much.”

Laughter echoed in the darkness and she made her way toward the escalators, still dressed only in her bra and panties. Of all the rotten damn timing…. She’d always rolled her eyes when she’d watched movies and the heroines stripped down only to find themselves immediately placed in the path of the monster or psychopathic killer. She’d thought it was cheesy and more than a bit trite. But now look where she was. All she could keep thinking as she slipped through the store was you gotta be frigging kiddin’ me.

She tried to ease up the escalator in sort of a duck-walk fashion, hoping that the sides would at least keep her partially hidden from view.

From behind her, she heard another clang. This time closer. Louder.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are….”

Almost to the top now, sleepwear and lingerie.

Clang.

She struggled to keep her breathing steady: slow inhale through the nose, exhale softly through the mouth. Just like in yoga.

“Keep it together, girl. You are not going to die in this place.”

Laughter again, this time seeming to swirl all around her, as if it were forming from the very molecules of air itself. A hundred million tiny voices all giggling in unison.

“There you are! Daddy’s home… why don’t you come and give him a big, wet kiss?”

Shit. The man was at the bottom of the escalators. No time for stealth now. She broke into a run, scrambling up the few remaining stairs as he banged his pipe off the bottom step, this time resulting in more of a dull clunk than a clang.

He continued up the rest of the escalators slowly, pausing on each one to smack the step ahead of him. He was whistling again, the bastard.

Polly stood as motionless as possible and concentrated on her breathing. So shallow, so soft, that she even her breasts didn’t rise and fall. She stood rock still and watched as he worked his way through the racks, thrusting his pipe into the middle of each one in case she was hidden within the clothes like a rabbit in a warren.

“I’m gonna getcha girlie-girlie-girl. I’m gonna getcha….”

He was close now. So close that she could see dark stains covering his jacket and shirt. Stains which, in any other situation, she probably would have mistaken for motor oil.

But in this new, fucked up world she knew exactly what had caused those stains.

And she knew that unless she was very, very careful within the course of a few seconds she would be adding a few stains of her own to the ensemble.

And that couldn’t happen. Not after all she’d been through, damn it. It simply couldn’t happen.

“I’m gonna getcha….”


CHAPTER NINE

<p>CHAPTER NINE</p>

It was utterly glorious. The smoke. The fire. The blood that formed Rorschach patterns on the streets and sidewalks. Bodies were starting to pile up, heaping one on top of the other like mass Cambodian graves. Everything was swirling in chaos and Richard felt as if he were a general strolling through a victorious battlefield. The weak were falling and the strong were emerging as the dominant species, claiming the golden thrones that had awaited them for so long; even his leg didn’t hurt, not really. He’d ripped up one of Polly’s t-shirts and tied it so tightly around the wound that the leg of his pants almost seemed to bulge up around the tourniquet. Downing half a bottle of Captain Morgan had further dulled the throbbing pain and he found that he was able to walk with only the slightest of limps.

When he’d made his way out of the apartment, he’d caught a glimpse of something shiny peeking out from underneath one of the bodies crumpled by the main entrance. He’d tossed the corpses aside as if they were nothing more than bags of garbage; which — in a way — they were. Simply meat sacks now, waiting for decay to set in and reduce their soft parts to a smelly ooze. Completely disposable. And once they were out of the way he’d found his treasure beneath, gleaming like a sacred relic and waiting to be claimed.

The machete felt good in his hand. Almost as if it were simply an extension of his arm. He took a couple test swings, enjoying the sharp whack it made as the blade sank into the skull of one of the bodies. Placing his foot against the head for leverage, he pulled the weapon free and smiled.

Oh this was good… this was really good.

When he hit the street he’d allowed himself to be distracted. He’d seen the action a few blocks away and made a bee-line for it.

He made no attempt to hide. He walked openly down the center of the street, swinging the machete at his side, as he placed one foot in front of the other, allowing the double yellow lines to guide him into the fray.

When he was close enough to smell the tang of the blood, to hear the moans of those who’d been left to bleed-out on the asphalt he broke into a quick trot, weaving back and forth across the lines now like a serpent on a branch. His pulse quickened and the trot became a jog, the jog a run, and then he was totally oblivious to the fresh blood streaming down the side of his thigh as his wound puckered with each flex of the muscle like some grisly mouth expecting a kiss.

Richard burst through a crowd of hooligans and suddenly he was spinning and ducking, whirling like a dervish on meth, his arms swinging the blade of the machete in wide arches. He felt flesh and cloth rendered beneath his attack, felt the spray of warm blood on his face, and heard the unmistakable sucking sound of chest wounds as he ran people through. Some of his victims staggered around with their hands clutching their throats, trying to contain the arc of blood that gushed from the wide slit on their necks. Others had arms, legs, and hands drop uselessly to the asphalt: phantom impulses caused the fingers to twitch, as if they could somehow claw their way back up the street and reattach themselves to their former bodies.

And it was everything he’d ever dreamed it would be. The confusion. The sounds of the battlefield, of skirmishes lost and won in a conflict that had no clearly defined sides. He could give or take life as he saw fit, could claim the spoils of war as he pleased… out here he was so much more than the sum of his parts. He was a machine: a perfectly timed, precision juggernaut that couldn’t be stopped.

Molotovs were tossed from somewhere, the glass bottles shattering across the concrete as blue flames whooshed into existence and spread like lakes of Hell across the road. Those close to the point of impact were engulfed by the fire and they stumbled around, human shaped torches, screaming in wordless agony as their fat hissed and bubbled, melted and dripped away from their skeletons.

Damn idiots. Stop, drop, and roll mother fuckers. Stop, drop, and roll.

He noticed a group of men clustered together on the sidewalk, watching all the carnage go down. They were all dressed in desert camos with boonie hats flopping on the top of their heads, mirrored shades reflecting the light of the fires so that it almost seemed as if flames were burning somewhere deep within their skulls. Not military: their equipment had the look of surplus, of hand-me-down goods from an older brother they hated with a passion. One of the militias then.

Another strolled up the sidewalk to join the group and he raised his fist at a ninety-degree angle and mouthed the words freedom or death. The others repeated this display and Richard felt the urge to laugh.

How sweet. They had a secret handshake for their little club.

Richard began backtracking, slaughtering his way in reverse so to speak, the blade of the machete singing through the air like the voice of the angel of judgment. There. Over behind the parked car. The one that, miraculously, hadn’t been firebombed yet. He thought he’d seen it out of the corner of his eye, but now he knew for certain.

Oh man, was this going to be great….

The members of The Sons of Eternal Freedom stood beneath the awning where they would be safe from any incendiaries lobbed from above. They watched the people on the street as knives flashed, as Saturday Night Specials spit deadly little peas into eye sockets and ears, and money changed hands back and forth.

“I got twenty on the little fella in the football helmet.”

“Put me down for fifty on the chick with the mohawk.”

And, as often as the cash was passed back and forth, so was the bottle of Vodka one had pulled from his rucksack. They’d expected to see more action, actually. But once things really went to hell in a hand basket, the military had pulled back for some reason. At first they huddled in stores, believing that a bombing run surely had to be on the way. But the sky was never parted with the shrieks of jets and the only explosions rocking these streets were homegrown ones: IDEs, cars crashing into the sides of buildings, gas stations in the distance giving up their precious oil to the fury of the uprising. It was actually better than they could have even planned themselves but required little intervention on their part.

“Shit,” one of them drawled, “wonder where the hell Machete Guy done run off to? Dropped two-Gs on that mother fucker. Never figured him for a coward.”

The street wars were like their own personal Ultimate Fighting Championships. However, the losers of these matches paid the supreme cost; none of them would be coming back within a few weeks to have another go at the title.

“Anyone know exactly what they hell they’re fighting about anyway?”

No one did. But occasionally one of the brawlers would get a bit too close. Or maybe they’d be foolish enough to point the barrel of a gun at the spectators. Either way, this display of unsportsmanlike conduct was dealt with swiftly and decisively: it was a proven fact, time and time again, that even the thickest human skull was no match for a Mark XIX Desert Eagle with a fluted barrel.

One of their members came shambling along the sidewalk, the brim of his hat pulled down low and sunglasses gleaming in the fading light of the fires. Before long they’d have to remove the shades or they’d be running blind in a night fight… which wasn’t something any of them wanted to experience. Not on this scale, at least.

“That Roy? I think that’s Roy. Where in tarnation has he been? Done missed all the best parts.”

The newcomer stood in front of them and raised his fist in salute.

“Freedom or Death.”

The others raised their hands in return and were mouthing the slogan when it began to dawn on them. Something wasn’t right. That didn’t really sound like Roy at all and the pants were a bit too short weren’t they? Besides, Roy always wore white tube socks not those pansy argyle sons of bitches.

But by then it was too late. In a fluid movement, Richard ripped the machete from the duct tape that had held it to his back and began his dance of death all over again. He concentrated on the raised hands first, lopping them off at the wrists so they wouldn’t be able to slide the pistols from the holsters slung at the men’s sides. As the so-called freedom fighters struggled to remove weapons with their weaker hands, they were cut down one by one with a blade that had learned to like the taste of blood and only craved more.

Richard stooped and started grabbing the wads of cash the men had been gambling with; all this action had made his leg flare up again, so he took a look tug on the vodka, enjoying the burning trail it left down his throat.

And then it hit him.

That bitch Polly. She was out here somewhere. And he’d wasted precious time playing with these bozos. She never would’ve come this way. She would have tried to stay out of sight, would have followed the path of least resistance.

He had to double back.

He had to find her.

It was a matter of principal now.

The sweetest blood he could ever taste on this, the night of his greatest glory, belonged to that blond haired slut.

And he aimed to drink deeply from that crimson well long before the sun gathered enough courage to peek over the horizon.


CHAPTER TEN

<p>CHAPTER TEN</p>

The man smelled like cabbage which made Polly want to gag as waves of revulsion crashed over her body. The smell brought back memories of childhood, memories that she would have rather kept buried in the depths of her subconscious. It was all too easy to imagine that the man was her grandfather, slinking through the shadows of her bedroom while the rest of the house was still and quiet. He’d smelled like cabbage, too. She’d had to taste that rancid stink every time the old man shoved his tongue down her throat, every time he whispered in her ear that if she ever, ever told anyone that he would kill her little brother. He’d make it look like an accident, he said. And nobody would believe the word of a little girl who’d developed a reputation for spinning tall tales since her parents had died; they would all think she was lying, that she was simply trying to get back at him for not buying her the doll house she wanted or that pretty yellow dress. No, who would believe a little girl over him? She’d just better be a nice little girl and do exactly what he told her if she knew what was good for her….

So night after night he’d slip into her room and hurt her in ways a little girl should never be hurt. All the while telling her how beautiful she looked, how sexy she was, and how he knew she wanted this as much as he did by the way she stared at him when he was chopping wood. She would bite her bottom lip to keep from screaming, would squeeze her eyes shut so tightly the tears were forced out like water from a sponge, would pray that her father would somehow burst through the door to save her, that everything could go back to how it used to be, before the car crash. But no one ever came. Night after night, year after year… even when she’d tried smearing chicken blood inside her panties to make him think she was having her period. Even when she really did have her period. And each time there was the smell of cabbage souring the air around her, suffocating her in its stink….

But she didn’t need that bastard haunting her. Not now. Not with so much at stake. She had to bring her attention back to the present, to remember that it was her life she was trying to protect this time.

Focus.

The man was whistling again and he drug the pipe behind him, allowing the metal to grate across the floor with a scraping that set her teeth on edge. And he just kept circling her: never moving away, never drawing too near. It was almost as if he had some sort of onboard radar that let him know she was close… so very close… without ever giving away her actual position.

She wasn’t sure how long she could keep this still and quiet. The muscles in her legs were beginning to ache, her arms and shoulders becoming sore. She tried willing individual muscles to flex slightly, just enough to keep the shakes from setting in; but it required so much concentration she was afraid something else might suffer. That she might exhale a little too loudly. That her bladder might give way and mark her location with a pungent puddle. There were so many little things that could go wrong.

Maybe this wasn’t such a bright idea after all.

And the cabbage… it had to be cabbage, didn’t it? Her stomach acids churned and she felt them threatening to shoot up her esophagus, to flood her mouth with the bitterness and sting of bile. But even the smallest hitch, even the slightest wretch, and it would all be over.

She could hear the man muttering under his breath now. So very close.

“Where you at girlie-girlie-girl? I know you’re around here somewhere. Come to Daddy. Come on now.”

He retraced the same path he’d been traveling for the last ten minutes: through the circular clothing racks, past the mannequins in their slinky black teddies and baby doll nighties. As he passed each one, the fucking perv trailed his free hand over their cold, plastic breasts.

“Damn it, I’m tired of this bullshit!”

His yell made her eardrums feel as if they were trembling and was so sudden and unexpected that she was surprised she didn’t jump. Or at least gasp. But no, she’d somehow managed to remain as still as the dead; maybe she had more control than she’d ever given herself credit for. Maybe she was really as strong, after all, as her t-shirt slogans lead the world to believe.

“You come out now and I’ll make it quick. Hell, I might even let ya live. But I definitely won’t make you suffer. Not if you just come out right now.”

He was standing in front of a mannequin dressed in a rather plain set of bra and panties, scanning the darkness with a slow swivel of his head.

“Shit, bitch,” he mumbled, “you’re gonna suffer so bad you’ll wish I had killed ya.”

He reached out as he peered into the gloom and gave the dummy’s left tit a little squeeze. The breast flexed slightly beneath his fingers like a balloon filled with warm water.

“What the….”

The mannequin’s raised arm swooped downward and for a fraction of a second the man who smelled of cabbage screamed. His yells echoed through the empty department store as if mocking the searing pain that had exploded through his skull; but then he fell silent as blood oozed from his ear and coated the yellow handled screwdriver that had somehow sprouted from the side of his head.

Polly let go of the tool and the man immediately fell to the ground as if her grip had been the only thing keeping him aloft. He laid there, twitching and jerking, as a crimson halo blossomed around his head. His eyes were still moving so he was still alive… technically. Not really much of a life, though. How much could you actually function with a six inch screwdriver embedded into the soft tissue of your brain? Judging from the smell of shit wafting from the rear of his trousers and the dark stain spreading across the front, not a whole hell of a lot.

Polly bent over and picked up the pipe that lay beside the man’s convulsing body. It was heavier than it looked; lead probably judging from how solid it felt in her hands. She took a practice swing and frowned at the amount of strength it took just to control the pipe’s arc. But it would have to do. Unless something better came along, that was.

She stood in front of the man’s body and the image of a golf pro lining up a shot sprang to mind. She began by touching the pipe gently against the end of the screwdriver and then pulled back slowly as if for a swing. She held the position, both hands gripping one end of the pipe, the other held over her head and almost horizontal with the floor; she watched him spasm, watched his eyes dart from the business end of the metal rod to her grip on it. No doubt thinking about how far a single swing would drive the screwdriver into his head. If, that was, he was still capable of thinking at all.

None of the emotions raging within Polly were betrayed by her expression. She stared down at him with all the blankness of the mannequin she had pretended to be: the rage, the years of frustration that had been shoved down so deeply within her, the humiliation and pain. All of this barely touched her face as she watched this twitching, pathetic worm of a man.

She took a deep breath and swung the pipe.

It whistled through the air in a deadly arc and the man’s pupils widened as his eyes seemed to bug out from his head; but the end of the pipe passed harmlessly above him, the breeze from its passing doing nothing more than rustling his hair.

“I don’t think so, prick.”

Polly knelt next to him and closed her eyes for a moment. In the darkness of her mind she saw a blond haired gir dressed in a white nightgown spotted with golden princess crowns, the child was solemn and silent; she, too, was kneeling and before this little girl was the crumpled body of a man with sparse gray hair and a milky cataract filmed over his right eye. He was frail and wasted, nothing more than a skeleton hiding beneath skin as thin and wrinkled as tissue paper.

This was the girl’s grandfather from years later: after she’d put on all the weight during her teen years, the cancer had ravaged his body as thoroughly as he had her own. She’d never visited him in the hospital and everyone had assumed that it was simply because she couldn’t bear to see him in that state. That she wanted to remember him as he always had been, not as this zombie-like shell of a man. But still they urged her to pay her respects, to wish him a final goodbye. She would regret it later if she didn’t, they said. But she secretly knew that the only regret she would ever have is that she hadn’t killed the old bastard herself.

The little girl placed her lips close to his ear and prayed that he could actually hear her, that he could comprehend the whispered words coming out of her mouth. But when she spoke, the voice was that of an adult woman and fantasy overlapped with reality.

“You’re gonna suffer so bad you’ll wish you were dead. Mother fucker.”

Polly stood, tucked the pipe beneath one arm as if it were a parasol, and left the man lying on the floor with the screwdriver burrowed into his head, as helpless and scared as an abandoned baby. And with him, she also left something else: a part of her that had always hidden beneath those loose baggy clothes, a part which she had tried for so long to forget had ever actually existed. As she walked away, tears trickled from the corners of her eyes and her steps felt as if she’d just removed twenty pound weights that had been strapped to her ankles for decades. She cried and she smiled… after all this time, the little girl was finally free.

She dressed quickly, slipping into the jeans and t-shirt without ceremony. As an afterthought, she picked out a good pair of track shoes, black as well, and some nice dark socks. That ought to do.

She then picked her way through the department store, slipped out the window through which she’d initially entered, and was back on the street.

She’d keep heading north, see if she could make it out of town. Surely this type of thing couldn’t be happening everywhere. She understood from the news that all of the major cities were entirely embroiled in chaos; but there had to be small town, little villages and hamlets, where life went on as it always had. Places where all the violence and killing were nothing more than pictures on the television, something to worry about and discuss over dinner… but not something that really effected your life. That had to be out there somewhere, didn’t it? It had to be.

So she kept moving forward. Whenever possible she crept through long rows of hedges and shadow, laying flat and still in the dirt when she’d hear the sputtering of a motorcycle or the wild whoops of savages on the rampage. She’d become quite adept now at holding her breath, at taking only the minimum amount of air necessary for consciousness. Her experience in the department store had showed her exactly what she was capable of and the lengths to which she would go to simply survive. She knew that she lacked the physical strength to take on every threat that crossed her path. But as far as she could tell, these were more like rabid animals than human beings. They seemed to attack with little to no reason. Sometimes the victorious looted the bodies of the fallen as if it were nothing more than a mugging taken to the extreme. But, more often than not, it seemed as if they were killing simply for the sake of the act itself.

The two men in the parking lot of Tateman’s Funeral Home, for example. As she hid behind a dumpster, she’d seen them charge one another, each brandishing a baseball bat like a samurai sword and running like shogun locked into mortal combat. Their yells quivered in their throats, breaking and straining as they sprinted full force with the bats raised above their heads.

At the last possible second, both men swung and there was a sharp crack as the wooden weapons smacked into one another. From that point on it was a viscous attack of swings and dodges, blocks and misses, neither man showing mercy as he struggled for dominance.

The larger one, whom she’d begun to think of as Curly, took these shuffling side-steps backward, fending off a particular furious barrage of swings from the smaller man, whom she’d dubbed Moe due to his dark, bowl-cut hair. Maybe she’d moved slightly or perhaps it was something else; but for a split second Curly was distracted and he stumbled over one of those oblong concrete dividers that keep cars from backing into one another. He fell on his rear but Moe showed no quarter, swinging his bat instead with a renewed sense of urgency.

Curly held his own bat by both ends, slightly over his head, and blocked the swings of his attacker again and again as he tried to scoot across the parking lot on his ass. Each time the bats connected there was a loud pop, sharper than the one proceeding it, and Moe’s nostrils had begun to flare wide as his face pulled back into a rigor of unadulterated fury. Again and again he brought the bat down as cracks began splitting his opponent’s weapon lengthwise until, finally, Curly’s bat splintered in half.

Moe seemed to see this as his coup de tat: he shook his Slugger over his head like an angry gorilla and prepared to bring it down with one final sweep. At the same time, however, Curly had tossed the fat end of his bat aside and held the remaining piece by the grip-taped handle. As the little one made his swing, Curly thrust the sharp shards of broken wood upward; his weapon sank into his opponent’s chest at the same time Moe’s bat cracked open his skull. The two men collapsed upon each other, neither one emerging as the victor, both dying as their blood mingled on the asphalt.

And that was the way most of the skirmishes seemed to play out: nothing more than blind rage devoid of any reasoning or strategy as far as she could tell. It was as if the rioters were relying almost entirely upon brute force and animalistic instinct. But Polly, she had cunning on her side. She had the ability to think things through, to not simply allow consequences to dictate her course of action. And that, perhaps, just might be the edge she needed to keep her ass alive.

After witnessing the battle at the funeral parlor, Polly managed to go several blocks before she had to duck into a butcher’s shop. There was a body builder type who was running down the road at full speed. He didn’t seem to have any obvious weapons, but his sheer size made him a big enough threat to warrant evasion.

Luckily, she’d been able to slip into the store before he caught a glimpse of her. She picked her way through the darkness carefully and made her way to the back where she found a shiny cleaver partially embedded into the skull of a man with a bushy mustache and blood spattered apron. There was no way to tell if the blood were animal or human, but it didn’t really matter. The lead pipe had been bulky and cumbersome; it slowed her down when she was on the run and had almost given her away several times with its attempts to roll away. But this cleaver… it was light and deadly, easy to swing without taking a toll on her already exhausted body, and specifically designed for hacking through flesh and bone. Yeah, the clever would work nicely….

Under normal situations, it would have only taken Polly half an hour or so to reach the other side of town. But this was stop and go, slink and stealth, run and hide: progress was made in small spurts and she had to stay patient after she’d left the butcher with her new weapon in hand. After all if she just broke out into a full on sprint for the finish line, she’d never make it. Not in one piece, at least.

She kept on, slow and steady, until finally she was nearing the outskirts of town. Just around the next bend and she’d be leaving all this madness behind. She’d find somewhere where she could begin trying to put the pieces of her life back together again. Somewhere normal where she could finally find time to cry for Cody. Hell, where she could finally find time to cry for herself….

And fuck this place anyway. Let all those crazy bastards kill each other. Let them keep right on going until not a single one was left standing. She didn’t care anymore and wanted nothing more than to put it all behind her.

As she rounded the corner, she was suddenly bathed in lights brighter than any she’d ever seen. They warmed her face with the heat of a dozen tanning beds and she squinted into the glare as she shielded her eyes with the crook of her arm.

Great. What fresh hell was this, then?

And in this stark field of vast whiteness she heard a voice that sounded as if it were being broadcast over some sort of loudspeaker or bullhorn.

Do not attempt to cross the yellow line….

What the hell?

Her eyes had begun to adjust to the light and she could see it now. Painted in bright yellow, nearly six feet in width, was a large strip that bisected the road horizontally. On the other side of the yellow stripe was a bank of lamps that illuminated the landscape as if it were day. Further beyond that was a row of military transports, parked so closely together that a piece of paper wouldn’t have been able to pass through their bumpers. They entirely blocked both lanes of the road.

The use of deadly force has been authorized. I repeat….

In front of the vehicles was another row, this one of soldiers standing nearly shoulder to shoulder. Their faces were entirely cast into shadow beneath the netted helmets atop their heads; but she didn’t need to see their expressions to realize exactly what was going on. For each soldier held some sort of machine gun. And each machine gun was raised slightly in her direction.

Do not attempt to cross the yellow line….


CHAPTER ELEVEN

<p>CHAPTER ELEVEN</p>

She’d been this way. He knew it. It wasn’t as if there were tracks he could follow or that she was leaving scraps of clothing here and there. But it only made sense. She would probably be trying to get out of town, to put as much distance between herself and him as she could. And since the majority of the fighting was going down on the South Side, she had to be heading north. He almost imagined that he could smell her scent in the air, that aroma of wildflowers after a spring rain. But tinged with something else: the acrid stench of fear seeping from her pores. She was alone, defenseless, a mere woman turned loose in a world of Gods. In fact, there was a good chance that she was holed up somewhere, perhaps in a burnt out storefront, crying softly and wishing that everything would simply go away. That she could rest and find peace… that she could close her eyes and never have to worry about pain or illness or suffering ever again.

He imagined himself stepping over blackened timbers, the trusty machete by his side, his shadow falling across her delicate form. She would look up with streaks of makeup smeared across her face; she would tremble as he extended his hand to brush her bangs away from her eyes; but as his fingers graced her skin, she would sigh softly. Polly would realize that it had been a mistake fighting the first time; that she simply should have given in. After all, who does not sooner or later bend to the will of God?

And he would rip her clothes from her, tearing them from her body so easily that the threads may have as well been dry rotted and held together more by faith than any actually skill in tailoring. She would tremble before him, perhaps shyly covering her breasts and pubis… that was to be expected. But her body would quiver for entirely different reasons once he was inside her, once she knew the gift he’d been trying to bestow upon her. He would feel the tiny spasms of her muscles, the rise and fall of her perfect breasts against his chest as her breathing quickened. The warmth of her sighs tickling the little hairs lining his ears.

Then, once he’d had his way and the hunger had been sated, he would save her. He’d take her life from her, sparing her the all of the horrors of a world that he knew now that she could never survive in. He would be her hero and she would go willingly into that cold, eternal night. And as the light slowly faded from her eyes, she would hear the galloping of hoof beats and know that finally, at last, she had been delivered into His kingdom.

But first he had to find the stupid bitch. There were so many places she could be hiding and he simply didn’t have time to check them all. So he moved forward on instinct, searching shoe stores and newsstands, coffee shops that looked as if a tornado had passed through them, and all the little places she might find a modicum of comfort in. Sometimes he got the distinct impression that she had been there. Nothing more than a gut feeling really. But it was enough to urge him to continue on, to drive him forward.

And it was all still so glorious. The dead weren’t as numerous on this side of town but every so often he could see would-be contenders to the almighty throne who had tried to prove themselves and were found wanting. Early in the search, there was a pathetic puddle of a man who laid shivering in fear as Richard approached. What looked to be a screwdriver had somehow found its way into the side of his head and he watched this lost soul for several moments, laughing at the way the man’s eyes would flinch every time he cut off a finger. And yet the fool never tried to pull his hand away. Not even once. After all the digits had been severed, Richard stuffed them into his pocket: they might make an admirable necklace sometime, a reminder of the hunt which now defined his life. He considered taking the head as well, but figured it would be bothersome to transport and would tend to get in the way in the midst of a fight. So he left the man lying there, bleeding from the remains of both of his hands as well as the ear in which the screwdriver was impaled.

Part of him had to truly admire the warrior who’d done that. Humans are as slippery as eels, tricky and quick. To actually shove a tool that far into the brain… well, that took something of a special gift. Not one as great as his own, of course, but a talent none-the-less. What he wouldn’t give to face this worthy adversary in battle, to know his blood upon the blade of the machete. It would be an honorable death, one the unknown destroyer could take pride in.

Later he came across two idiots who looked as if they had taken each other out in unison. Now they were locked in Death’s embrace, clutching each other like lovers. For these two, he had no respect what-so-ever. This was more of a clown show, an amusement for children who weren’t yet old enough to witness the true bloody spectacle of the circus; unzipping his pants, he took a piss on the corpses and chuckled as he imagined that it was actually Polly and Jane lying there.

Where the hell was she anyway? He was getting closer to the edge of town with each passing moment… was it possible he’d be wrong? That she hadn’t been hiding at all? Perhaps even now she was miles from this place, hitchhiking along some country road, praying that someone would pick her up who would end it all. Perhaps a drunk driver who would crash them into the river when he took out the guardrail of a bridge. Or one of those traveling amateurs who kill twelve or so helpless women, hiding them in garbage dumps and shallow graves almost as if they are ashamed of their work. They pretended to aspire to greatness but never really possessed the courage to reach out and take it. Even the homo-erotic clowns in the funeral home parking lot possessed more honor than these would-be saviors. At least those buffoons had some measure of pride in what they did; at least they understood exactly what all the killing was for. Even if they did it so badly.

But, no. He was positive that wasn’t the case. He was meant to rescue her from all of this, it was his destiny, the labor he must complete before his full glory could be completely known. He had to claim his prize, to prove that she had not, indeed, bested him back in the kitchen.

The kitchen… that seemed so long ago now. As if it had all taken place in another life, perhaps to a different person. And, in a way, it had. The God had always been slumbering within him, waiting for The Great Change to awaken it, to allow him to ascend to glory. He’d just never possessed the courage to simply take whatever it was he desired. If he was angry, he should have struck down the person who ired him; if he was lustful, he should have taken the woman who had stirred his loins with passion. Things would have been so much different if only he’d realized all this so much sooner.

But, as Jane used to say, better late than never. It was probably the only true wise thing to ever come out of her mouth. And because it was better late than never, he would find Polly. He would find her, he would take her, and then he would save her.

And she would thank him for it.

He’d allowed his mind to wander, to drift off into thoughts of things to come. Which was dangerous out here. You had to keep yourself in a constant state of hyper-awareness, to remain as sharp and focused as a laser sight. Every little sound, the slightest of movements in a darkened window, that prickling sensation on the back of your neck that made you wonder if someone were watching you, lurking in the shadows as they awaited the opportunity to pounce: these things were very real, very important. These things would keep you alive. Richard knew this. And yet, somehow, he’d still allowed that bitch to distract him again.

Something that felt like a runaway brick wall plowed into his body with enough force to lift him off his feet. For a moment he was pressed tightly against a mass of rock-hard muscle, being carried by the momentum of whatever had slammed into him, and it was how a bird must feel right after it had flown full force into the grill of a speeding car. But then he was soaring through the air, the city nothing more than a streaked blur around him, falling and flying all at the same time, struggling to recapture the breath that had been forced from his lungs by the collision.

His back skidded across the road and the machete flew from his hand, clinking faintly as it tumbled over the asphalt. Before he’d even had a chance to roll, something solid and heavy crashed down onto his groin, something that felt like a boulder dropped from above; Richard doubled over as nauseating pain radiated from testicles that now throbbed like twin hearts. He instinctively cupped his hands over the tender area but then fresh pain exploded in his lip as the coppery taste of blood flooded his mouth. Again and again something pounded on his lips and nose with flat, wet smacks and he was vaguely aware of a face leering down at him, eyes ablaze with the thrill of the hunt and lips pulled back into a sneer of brutal enjoyment.

Richard’s fingers grasped for a handful of hair but it felt short and bristly, as if it had been shaven close to the scalp, and they found no purchase. He went for the eyes instead, raking at his attacker with fingers hooked into talons; but the man threw his head back slightly and the fingernails simply peeled curls of skin from the cheeks instead.

And still the fists rained down like a pair of pistons: hammering, bashing, pummeling, jarring teeth loose from gums, shattering bone in the bridge of the nose, spraying droplets of blood as the knuckles connected again and again with Richard’s battered face.

He writhed beneath the man, trying to squirm free even as his left hand groped blindly along the gritty street, searching for the familiar handle of his weapon. But this dude was thick, as dense and hard as an iron girder, and from that first moment of impact he’d refused to give up the edge that the element of surprise had blessed him with. He was a fucking death engine, fueled by high octane adrenaline and concentrated testosterone: no need for guns or knives or clubs; no need for anything, really… except those two solid fists wrapped in boxer’s tape and their lethal fury.

Bursts of darkness had begun to blossom in Richard’s field of vision, like time-lapse flowers unfurling their black petals in a world that seemed slightly blurry and out of focus. Small at first, no bigger than pinpoints. But as his face continued to absorb the shock of each new punch, they fed on the pain like it was fertilizer, growing in size and number.

All of the storybooks had it wrong. Death wasn’t some gangly skeleton enshrouded in a black cloak: no… the true bringer of darkness was a juiced-up meat head in a yellow wife beater and spandex shorts that barely contained the muscles bulging against them. And he was simply going to kneel on Richard’s chest as if it were a prayer rug and offer up blood sacrifices to whatever dark god he served. He would usher his victim into the inky waters of the river Styx and Richard’s short reign as Lord of this World would come to an untimely end.

And it was all her fault.

That stupid, distracting little cunt.

Polly.

CHAPTER TWELVE

The brightness of the lights reflected off the cleaver, momentarily blinding Polly again with the unexpected glare. She squinted her eyes and pressed her face into her inner elbow as she opened her hand and allowed the tool to jangle against the street. She’d actually forgotten that she was holding it. No wonder they wouldn’t let her pass. It was all some big misunderstanding. Raising both arms into the air, palms facing outward, she turned in a slow circle.

“No,” she yelled out, “it’s okay. I’m not one of them. See? I’m not armed! It’s okay!”

Once she’d made a complete revolution, she took a few steps forward. Very slowly. Very deliberately. She didn’t know how well these guys were trained. Were they soldiers hardened by the sand and heat of distant deserts? Or green recruits who might get spooked at any sudden movement and reflexively pull the trigger on an unarmed woman? No sense taking chances.

“I don’t want any trouble! I just want to leave, okay?”

Her feet were mere inches away from the yellow stripe. The stripe which had quickly become a sort of magical barrier she had to cross. As if none of the insanity within the city could possibly spill over that bright paint. Just beyond was freedom. Just beyond was hope.

Do not attempt to cross the yellow line!

She stopped in her tracks and her wrists swiveled slightly on her raised hands as if in an exaggerated shrug. She didn’t understand… maybe they hadn’t heard her.

“I’m not one of them!”

She yelled louder this time and her voice echoed through the silence.

“My name is Polly Wainwright… I don’t have any weapons on me! I just want out of here, okay? You don’t know what it’s like in there….”

She’d taken another step as she pleaded and there was a salvo of clicks as the line of soldiers snapped their weapons to full attention. For some reason, the phrase lock and load flirted through her mind. But this was crazy. They had to have heard her that time. There was no way they could be mistaking her for one of them. No, she’d explained everything, had shown them that she posed no threat.

Glancing down, she saw that the tip of her left shoe had edged up against the border of the stripe in the road.

I repeat… do not attempt to cross the yellow line! Deadly force has been authorized, ma’am.

She shuffled back several steps without even thinking about it. The soldiers, however, kept their weapons trained on her.

This was fucking insane! They were supposed to protect her. They were the damn army for Christ’s sake!

“I just want to leave!”

Her voice quivered as she yelled and she felt frustration and fatigue begin to work its way through her body. Her muscles felt as if they were dissolving, liquefying with each passing second, and she’d begun to tremble as if suddenly afflicted with palsy.

“I just want out!

No longer capable of supporting the weight of her own body, her knees buckled and she fell to the ground, kneeling before the almighty yellow stripe as if in supplication. She realized that her cheeks were warm and wet, that tears were streaming from her eyes like water from a ruptured main. The trembles had turned to outright shaking now and, oddly enough, her teeth were chattering as she wept. As if she were out in the freezing cold instead of a warm, spring night.

“I don’t understand….”

Her voice was softer now, something just above a whisper and every few syllables were punctuated by a sniffle or sob as her shoulders convulsed with tears. It didn’t matter, though. She wasn’t really talking to them anyway.

“Why won’t they let me leave? Why? I just want to go….”

Her palms were tightly pressed into her eye sockets and she rocked back and forth as she slowly shook her head. She took a deep gasp of air through her mouth and held it for a moment, picturing the healing white light her Yoga instructor always had them visualize. But no. That wasn’t right. She tried inhaling through her nose, the snot bubbling and gurgling as she felt her diaphragm balloon out.

That’s it… breathe.

She imagined the white light seeping into the tension in her muscles, loosening its grip on her body like salt dissolving in warm water. Diffusing through her chest and abdomen. Warm, like the rays of the sun. Soothing. Relaxing.

Now exhaling, slowly through the mouth, envisioning a dark plume carrying away all the toxins, all the filth, all the poison that had built up in her soul. Inhale. Hold. Repeat.

A beach, the waves of the sea crashing against the breakers. Gulls overhead, soaring high in the cloudless sky, riding the currents of the wind. The scent of the ocean carried on the breeze, salty and invigorating; warm sand between her bare toes… sunlight sparkling on deep blue waters as if billions of miniature diamonds were surfing the peaks and troughs.

Exhale.

Repeat.

Polly opened her eyes.

Had they really just stood there? Watching her break down without so much as a word? Without even a fucking sound?

They were just as heartless and calloused as any of the savages back in town. Perhaps more so. At least those running rampant through the streets were doing what they wanted to do, however fucked up those desires may be. At least they weren’t simply following orders like good little sheep.

Fuck these people. There were other ways out of town. They couldn’t be blocking them all could they?

She stood with as much dignity as she could muster, taking a moment to brush the dust off the knees of her jeans and push the hair back from her eyes.

“I hope you’re all so very proud of yourselves.”

Her voice was even and cold. No hints of frustration. No confusion. No fear.

Not anymore.

“And I hope you remember this moment clearly. When you hear that your wives and girlfriends, your sisters… your mothers…. When you hear how they were cut down and left to die on the wrong side of some fucking yellow line. I hope you remember this well.”

The ranks were as silent as a church at midnight; but she was sure she’d planted a seed in at least one of their minds. A seed that would hopefully bloom into compassion. She may not be the one to harvest the crop she’d planted; but if at least one innocent person was able to make it to safety because of her… well, then it would have all been worth it, wouldn’t it?

She walked over to where she’d dropped her cleaver and was beginning to stoop down when there was finally a response.

Do not attempt to pick up that weapon!

Seriously?

“They’ll kill me, you know.”

A statement of fact. She was beyond begging now, beyond pleading.

I repeat, do not attempt to pick up your weapon….

So that’s how it was. That was their master plan: just let everyone kill each other off until order was restored to a depopulated city.

But it wouldn’t work. She knew it wouldn’t. She’d seen the savagery, the brutality, the determination these people invested in their violence. In some ways, it almost seemed to be a matter of pride for them. Before long, this wave of mutilation would come crashing down over their precious yellow line and they would find themselves being swept away in the torrents of the flood.

So be it.

She stood to her full height and glared into lights that cast long shadows behind her.

Strong.

Defiant.

Determined.

“Okay, then. But just remember… I didn’t want this. I only wanted to leave. You created me. You. Remember that.”

Polly turned her back on the blockade and faced the city. She watched as the flames danced on the horizon, as black smoke billowed into the air like the wings of unholy angels. She listened to the distant sound of gunfire.

She had no choice. If she wanted to make it out alive, she had to go back into the fray.

But she was different now.

Changed.

She knew that to survive the gauntlet of butchery and death she was preparing to go through meant that, in a way, she had died out here on the other side of the yellow line. She’d tried to give the soldiers the gift of compassion because she knew that would be a luxury she wouldn’t be able to afford. Not anymore.

To survive them, she would have to become one of their own.

No retreat, no surrender.

It was the only way.

“Bring it on, baby.” she whispered to the burning city. “Momma’s comin’ home.”


CHAPTER THIRTEEN

<p>CHAPTER THIRTEEN</p>

Somewhere close by another explosion rocked the city. This one sounded big, like maybe the Gas-n-Go had given up its pumps to a Molotov or out of control car. Richard could feel the shock waves tremble through the street and into his back, almost as if a small earthquake had shaken the very foundations of an already devastated city.

The behemoth he was pinned beneath ducked slightly as his head snapped to the side. At the same time, Richard had yanked hard on the yellow wife-beater and the shirt tore from the man’s muscular frame; as the shirt was ripping, the juicer’s arms flew up, forming the shape of an X above his head as his eyes flinched shut. It was a move of pure instinct: trying to reflexively shield his face from the possibility of white-hot shrapnel, the body builder had opened himself to a much more real, and deadly, threat.

Before the brute could recover from his mistake, Richard grabbed his own wrist with the other hand, squeezing so tightly that his entire right arm quivered. Tensing the muscles from shoulder to wrist, he rolled his body forward and upward with a quick snap. His elbow and upper forearm slammed into Meathead’s throat and he heard a sound like a sharp gag as the man’s Adams apple took the brunt of the blow.

Reflexes again. More instinct as the huge bastard dropped his hands to his own throat, wrapping them around the cord-like veins and muscles as if choking himself. He struggled for a gulp of air, but Richard could feel the momentum building, could feel the battle swinging to his favor. He formed his first two fingers into a stiff V and thrust them forward, directly into Meathead’s unprotected eyes. There was a slight squish, a second of something cold and wet on the tips of his fingers; the body builder’s hands moved again, this time pressing the palms against his now useless eyes as he bellowed in pain. Exposing the throat again.

Wrapping his hands around the back of the man’s skull, Richard pulled him forward. At the same time, he bent at the waist as if trying to sit up. Instead, he sunk his teeth into Meathead’s bottom lip and bit down with a grinding motion.. The idiot tried to pull away and there was a wet, ripping sound as a once solid piece of flesh was reduced to nothing more than a bloody strand.

Keeping his teeth clamped down, Richard jerked his head left and right like a dog shaking the life out of a snared rabbit. Meathead was screaming now, scrambling backward across the street as blood gushed from his ravaged mouth. Richard spat the gristle out of his mouth and stood slowly; his eyes scanned his surroundings methodically, covering each inch of street until they finally rested upon what he was looking for.

After retrieving the machete, he walked calmly toward Meathead. He stood over the blind, lipless freak and smacked the flat part of the blade against his palm as if it were a paddle.

“Nothing personal…”

His voice was thick and raspy, partly from the smoke that snaked through the avenues and alleys, partly from exertion.

“… but this is going to get ugly real fuckin’ quick..”

He didn’t have time to do all the things he really wanted. He had to be satisfied with hacking off the arms and legs… but not quickly. Oh no, that would have been too good for the fallen giant. So he held back, not swinging the machete with as much force as he could, sinking the blade only a few inches into flesh and bone at a time. Not so much dismembering the body but rather hacking it to pieces, one carefully placed blow at a time. Now the once-mighty warrior looked more like some freak attraction from a traveling sideshow of the macabre: a bloody gaping maw where a mouth should have been, the corners extended almost back to the jawline from where the blade of the machete had been slowly drawn across what remained of Meathead’s lips; no real limbs to speak of, just jagged stumps that — for a while — had caused the man-like creature to kind of rock back and forth, as if he were attempting to roll away.

But now Richard could feel a pressure growing around his eyes, like hundreds of tiny hands that had been dipped in molten glass forcing the skin to puff outward. They were slowly narrowing, becoming nothing more than mere slits, and if he didn’t do something to relieve the pressure soon he knew they would eventually close up completely. And then he’d be left, stumbling through the streets like a sacrificial cow….

He’d considered using the machete, but was wary of that prospect. Despite the workout he’d given it, the blade was still extremely sharp. If he accidentally cut too deep, it could be very bad; and then he’d have no one to blame but himself when the unseen executioner came to finish him off. No, he needed something smaller, a razor blade perhaps. Wasn’t that what they always used in the boxing movies Jane had hated with such a passion? Yeah, he was pretty sure it was.

Directly across the street from the inchworm that had once been Meathead was a brownstone. One of those apartments had to have a razor blade somewhere in a medicine cabinet. Or even a little paring knife. Something. Anything.

He staggered across the street and necessity forced him to rely on his ears, rather than peripheral vision, to safeguard himself. He could hear people shouting, probably a couple blocks away, a woman’s shrill scream crying out like the sound of a cougar in a concrete jungle; a slight breeze that had picked up litter which rattled across the street to his right. His own footsteps slapping against the pavement. His own heartbeat.

He started up the front steps of the brownstone, guiding himself with the smooth iron railings by his side. For a moment, he felt as if he’d stepped out of his life and been plopped down in the middle of a slasher film (which he’d always secretly enjoyed, despite what Jane considered to be a reprehensible lack of artistic merit.) It was almost like he was looking at the world through the oblong eye-holes of a mask with everything else surrounded by a perfect field of darkness. The raspy sound of his breath. The wooden door looming closer and closer with each step. Real John Carpenter type of shit.

By the time he got to the top of the stairs, Richard had to physically tilt his head down just to see the doorknob. But something was off with his depth perception and it seemed like he had to reach much further than he should have before he was able to turn it and open the door.

The inside of the brownstone was dark and quiet; even under optimal conditions, it would have been hard to make out details in the gloom. But his eyes now felt as if the skin around them were pulsating in perfect synchronicity with his heart, each throb sending needles of pain through his cheeks and brow. So much darkness now that he could barely make out the door with the little gold numbers on it. 1A? 1B maybe? Not that it mattered. As long as there was a razor. And as long as he could still see to find it.

If it had been like looking through a mask before, now it was more like peering through the slightly raised slat of a venetian blind. He couldn’t waste time checking to see whether or not the door was unlocked. Best to assume it wasn’t. He angled his body toward the door and then ran with every ounce of strength he could summon. Part of him worried that with the depth perception problem he simply might slam into the immovable wall but, as it turned out, that wasn’t an issue.

His shoulder hit the door like a battering ram. There was a sharp crack, a metallic ting as if something metal had broken off, and the door was flying open as he tripped over his own feet and fell onto the plush carpet of the apartment.

He could hear a child crying, very close. A woman screaming over and over get out! Get out!

A smell like dirty socks from somewhere.

And then something like the crackle of a bug zapper. Or a mad scientist’s lab in one of those old RKO films. Something electric.

I swear to God I’ll shock your ass if you come any closer!

That crackle and zip sound again: he could perfectly envision the little blue sparks jumping back and forth between the posts as the woman pressed the button on her stun gun to illustrate her point.

He could picture the scene perfectly, but that was it.

His eyes had finally swollen completely shut.

Richard was blind.


CHAPTER FOURTEEN

<p>CHAPTER FOURTEEN</p>

She had to find a weapon. And fast. Judging from the progression of the fires, the battle was slowly making its way toward this side of town. There’d been a massive explosion earlier and she’d watched as this giant fireball shot into the sky like a demon breaking free from the gates of Hell. It had almost seemed to hang in the air for a moment, the flames roiling and lashing out at the smoke and ashes in the sky. It was easy to imagine the blaze igniting the atmosphere, spreading across the heavens like a giant pool of gasoline set ablaze, blotting out the darkness above until it would seem as if the entire city were simply encased within a globe of fire. Instead, the column below it seemed to be sucked up into the mushroom and then, in the time it took to blink, the fiery apparition was gone.

The buildings of the city had begun to close in around her again, the sounds of the fighting growing louder with each step. For a while she hadn’t even heard the gunfire. Or the screams. Or the screeching of tires and rumbling of engines. It had all been background noise, static on the radio dial of reality. Every now and then, however, it had come roaring back into sharp focus as if to remind her that she couldn’t allow anything to become commonplace. She had to consider every aspect of her environment if she wanted to make it out of this alive. So Polly tried to concentrate on the sounds, to use them as her guide. If they seemed to mostly be coming from the North End, then she would head west. If the growl of a motorcycle was steadily growing louder and higher in pitch, she would duck into the shadows until it passed. And this method seemed to be working rather well for her. She’d navigated through several blocks without so much as seeing a soul. Or, more importantly, without a soul seeing her.

Now she’d reached the corner of Bentley and Jefferson. Wasn’t that where that asshole Richard had gone that morning? To get the box of supplies? It had to be. She could just make out what looked to be yellow tape stretching into the distance along Jefferson. Two horizontal bands, spaced just far enough apart for a person to be able to stand comfortably between the two.

Fuckin’ yellow lines, man. If I never see another yellow line in my life, it’ll be too soon.

A sound in the alley to her right caught her attention and her head snapped to the side as her hands formed into tight fists. She didn’t bother calling out “is someone there?” like those ditsy bimbos in movies and books. Of course someone was there. The sound had quite obviously been the scuffling of feet.

From the shadows of the alley a woman emerged. She was wearing a tattered dress smeared with the same soot that darkened her cheeks and forehead. Her hair was a tangled mess, as if she had went to bed with wet hair, woke up, and went about her business without bothering to pass a comb through it. In her hands she carried a small bundle: what looked to be a fuzzy pink blanket with some sort of cartoon characters patterned on it; it was cradled in her arms at an upward angle and, through a gap in the blanket, Polly could just make out a round little forehead and tiny nose. Miraculously, it was sleeping through all of this. Which was probably a blessing, actually. The last thing this woman needed was a crying baby on her hands when she was trying to hide.

As the woman stepped closer, Polly could see streaks in the soot on her face. As if she’d been crying and the tears had cleared swaths of clean skin through the grime and grit.

“They turned you away too, didn’t they? Wouldn’t let you leave?”

Polly nodded her head but remained silent, allowing this stranger to do all the talking.

“I have a baby. A baby for crying out loud. I asked… I asked if I could lay her on the yellow line and walk away. If they could wait ’til I left and take her somewhere safe.”

The woman had a slumped and defeated look which deepened with every step, every word… almost as if the story was the only real substance she had left and the telling of it was slowly deflating her.

“They wouldn’t do it. Why wouldn’t they do it? Why wouldn’t they take my baby?”

Funny. This entire time Polly hadn’t even considered the children. Where were they in all this madness? Where they huddled into basements and closets, hiding from the monsters which rampaged just outside their walls? Were their bodies piled among the faceless dead? Or, God forbid, were they joining in on the mayhem, taking out one another just like their adult role models were doing?

“Why wouldn’t they save my baby?”

Now Jane, she probably would’ve thought of the children first thing. That’s just the way she was. And that’s probably what she’d meant when she kept muttering those poor, poor people as they watched the news. God that seemed like such a long time ago…. It was hard to believe it had only been a matter of hours. That things could deteriorate so quickly once set into motion.

“Will you take my baby?”

Polly finally spoke.

“I don’t want your baby, lady. You should get back in that alley and hide. You don’t want to be out here.”

The woman looked around her, as if taking in the street for the first time before turning back to face Polly, who was now only six or seven feet away.

“Why won’t you take my baby?”

“Look, I’ve got enough to worry about on my own without….”

The woman dropped the baby as if it were nothing more than a sack of potatoes and broke into a run. The lost and confused look had disappeared from her face, replaced with a contorted mask of rage.

“I want your fucking shoes, you blond haired bitch!”

There was something shiny in the woman’s left hand, the one that had been hidden under the baby. Something that looked sharp.

The woman thrust the blade at Polly but she, somehow, was ready for it. She’d never really trusted this lady from the start. Something about how she’d kept saying my baby but never actually mentioning the child by name.

Polly pivoted gracefully on her heel, spinning her body out of the path of the knife as easily as if it were something she did on a daily basis. At the same time, she latched onto the woman’s arm and twisted it backward and down in one steady movement. The blade sank into the woman’s stomach and she gasped as her mouth and eyes formed perfect circles. Her fingers loosened from the hilt just enough for Polly to gain control and yank it free.

With her other hand, Polly pushed the woman’s back hard enough that she stumbled and fell several feet away.

“I swear to God if you’re not on your feet and out of here within the next five seconds, I’m gonna cut a bitch to shreds.”

Not a threat. Just a simple, flat statement.

The woman staggered to her feet and scrambled away, hunched over and gripping her stomach as if she could somehow keep the blood from spilling out of her body.

Shit. The damn baby….

As it turned out, Polly didn’t have much to worry about in that regard. What she hadn’t been able to see in the semi-darkness was that the baby’s face and lips were a subtle shade of blue. What looked to be the terrycloth belt of a bathrobe had been tied so tightly around the infant’s little neck that it had practically burrowed into the skin. The poor thing.

She couldn’t just leave it laying in the middle of the street like some piece of rubbish tossed from a passing car. It was true that she knew there was no place for compassion in her heart, not now at least. But she was still human, damn it. And it was the type of animal who did this that didn’t deserve her mercy; the kind who would murder the perfectly innocent and then use its body as nothing more than a prop in some fucked up ruse.

She could just make out the outline of a carriage in the shadows of the alley. The least she could do, then, was to place the baby back into the pram. It wasn’t a proper burial but in this city it was probably the closest anybody was going to get. So she laid the child’s stiff body down gently, next to a diaper bag overflowing with bottles and rattles and…. cigarettes?

She could see the shiny foil reflecting in the bottom of the bag, the red and white logo on the crumpled pack, the perfectly round and white tips of the filters. Like a starving woman who’d just found a candy bar, she snatched them from the bag. And where there’s smokes, there’s fire right? Yes! Just underneath a stack of diapers was a little orange lighter. God, she could really use a smoke right now.

She shook one of the cigarettes loose from the pack and placed the filter between her lips, relishing the firmness of the filter between her pursed lips.

But wait… if she lit up out here the flick of the lighter would be a beacon. The winking ember each time she took a drag would betray her presence in the shadows. Hell, the smell of the smoke might even draw in any crazy mother fuckers who might be lurking nearby. True, there were probably about twelve different kinds of smoke hanging over town: burning rubber, oil fires, gasoline fires, natural gas fires… but she would never underestimate the ability of someone who was really jonesing for a puff to be able to separate that particular smell from all the others. Hell, how many times had she tried to quit? And it was the smell, every time, that brought her running back.

So not here, then. Somewhere more secluded. Where she couldn’t be seen. Or smelled. Where she could enjoy half the damn pack if she chose to. But where?

She pictured a map of the city in her head, laying out the grids as best as she could and matching them up with landmarks. What was she on now? Bentley. Just a little past Jefferson. If she kept going up a couple blocks then she should come to 17th Street. And 17th led Oak which led to Hoover Elementary. Perfect. She could sit in the hallway, far from any windows, and smoke to her heart’s content. And she couldn’t imagine that there would be anything in a school that the rioters and looters would actually want. Not when there was an entire city to sack.

So it was settled then: Hoover Elementary. True, it would be a circuitous route. In a normal situation it would’ve been quicker and easier to head back the way she’d just come and loop back around. But she had a feeling that if she took the easier path, she’d be walking into her own death. It was an unshakable feeling somewhere deep in the pit of her gut. And if there was one thing she’d learned out here, it was that you had to trust your instincts.

She just hoped that the hunch she was allowing to guide her wasn’t leading her astray. That it really was the voice of instinct… and not the silver-tongued whisper of addiction coaxing her into a slow and painful death.


CHAPTER FIFTEEN

<p>CHAPTER FIFTEEN</p>

Richard still gripped the machete in his hand but he knew that if he tried to use it, he would simply be swinging blindly. The screaming kid made his eardrums tremble with its high pitched keen which, in turn, made it hard to judge exactly where the woman’s voice was coming from. There was a good chance he would swing the blade only to have 700,000 volts zapped into his body. Which would debilitate him completely. It was a chance he couldn’t take.

“Look, I need a place to hide, they’re crazy out….”

“Get the fuck out of my house!”

She wouldn’t hear it. Wouldn’t even give him a chance to try to sweet talk his way out of this one like he’d done with Jane. But, of course, Jane had wanted to believe… and that made all the difference in the world.

From somewhere on the street he heard the sound of a gunshot, followed by heavy return fire. And suddenly he heard the shattering of glass, probably a window, the thunk of something burying itself into the plaster wall beside him.

This caused the kid to really let loose with a series of short, shrill shrieks. Then footsteps padding across the carpet, someone running across the door toward the open door, toward him. Someone small.

“Ashley, no!”

Using the sound of the kid’s fear to guide him, Richard’s hand shot out into the darkness with the speed of a striking snake. He snatched a tiny ankle, heard a thud as the child fell to the floor, heavier steps running toward him, the mother hysterical, screaming, crackling her stun gun again and again, getting closer.

But he was quick. So damn quick. His hands scrambled up the little girl’s body, found pigtails, the head, the throat… all while sitting up at the same time. He held the girl tightly, his arm encircling her small neck as she tried to wriggle out of his grasp.

“Back off! I swear to God, I’ll snap this little bitch’s neck like a fuckin’ twig!”

The heavier footsteps stopped immediately. The kid was screaming mommy mommy mommy like some kind of chant and he tightened his arm slightly, just enough to cut off some — but not all — of the girl’s oxygen. Just enough to lower the damn volume a bit.

“You let her go, you son of a bitch! You let her go now!”

“Drop the taser!”

“Let my daughter go, you bastard!”

“Drop the fuckin’ taser or I swear you’ll be burying this little girl!”

He heard something thud to the floor. When the woman spoke her voice was an odd mixture of fear and anger. He could practically feel her seething, probably wishing she could claw his throat out with a fork.

“Look, I don’t want to hurt you! Either of you.”

He dropped his voice, made it sound as if he were on the verge of tears.

“But I will… if I have to. I don’t want to, but I will.”

Heavy breathing from across the room. The little girl crying now, her attempts at resistance losing some of the force with the restricted air flow.

“I found a way out… out of town. I was going back for my wife, Janey, when these guys jumped me. They beat the hell out of me. Bruised me up real bad. I’m friggin’ blind here!”

He pulled his teeth back into a grimace that he hoped looked like anguish. Lord knows he wouldn’t be able to squeeze out a tear, no matter how hard he tried.

The woman however sounded as if she were crying, however.

“Just… let my daughter go. Please, don’t hurt my baby….”

“Why the hell would I want to hurt her? Damn lady, I just want to get back to my own little girl. Polly. I just want to get back to her and Jane and get them the hell out of this shit hole.”

He forced his voice to sound excited.

“You can come with us. You and your daughter. I can keep us all safe, I promise. You just gotta help me and I can get us all out of this mess.”

Silence in the apartment, except for the little girl’s sobbing and Mom’s labored breathing. Then the sound of feet again, pacing across the floor. Probably wringing her hands.

“You let Ashley go… you let Ashley go and I’ll help you.”

“Lady, if I let this little girl go you’re gonna zap me with that gun of yours….”

“I won’t!”

“How do I know that?”

“Please, I promise….”

“You help me, then I’ll let her go. Then maybe you’ll see that you can trust me and we’ll all get out of this alive.”

More pacing in the darkness; he could almost taste the uncertainty in the air. The fear and trepidation.

Finally a small, soft voice:

“What do you need me to do?”

Richard looked out at the street through the bedroom window, really appreciating vision for probably the first time in his life. Which was one of the best things about The Change: it made you see everything in a different light, to cherish all the little things you used to take for granted in your day to day, humdrum life. The beers he’d just chugged down, for example, were the best ones he’d ever tasted: ice cold, the almost yeasty taste of the barely and hops… the way it seemed to fizz down the back of his throat. And that was an off brand, for Christ’s sake.

He took a long slow breath and adjusted the gauze that had been wrapped around his forehead to keep the blood from dripping down into his eyes.

The woman, whose name he’d learned had been Donna, had done a good job. He was worried that her hands might tremble, that she might accidentally slip and cut his eyelid with the razor. Especially since he was sitting there with her little girl locked in a death grip. But perhaps because of this, and not in spite of it, she was extremely steady. He’d warned her that if she tried anything funny with the razor little Ashley would be the one to pay the price. And apparently she’d believed him.

When the blood drained out, it felt like a great pressure had suddenly been removed from his head. Donna had went to the kitchen to get the beers out of the icebox, saying that he needed something cold on his face to help ease the swelling and pain even more. By this time, the blurriness was clearing and he could see the bathroom he’d been led into. White grouted tiles, a little toothbrush holder held by suction cups to the mirror above the sink, blue fish decals on the tank of the toilet she’d sat him upon.

Once he heard the refrigerator door open, he’d snapped Ashley’s neck. Quickly. Cleanly. Silently. He lifted her body and placed it in the tub, closing the curtain as softly as he could.

The machete, of course, hadn’t been brought into the bathroom with them. So instead, he removed the lid from the back of the toilet tank and draped a towel over where it had been as a disguise. After blowing out the candle and plunging the room into darkness, he positioned himself behind the door, working out the angles that would allow him to see the mirror without being seen himself.

When he first saw her, he almost gasped. She looked so much like Polly. A Polly who had let herself go perhaps. A Polly who drank a little too much beer, whose already round face had taken on an almost puffy look and whose belly was no longer tight and firm. And her hair was cut shorter too but it was the same color, had the same little ringlets.

He’d must have won Donna’s trust over completely with the stories of his life with Jane. She walked into the darkened bathroom without hesitation, her voice registering confusion but not fear or panic.

“Rick? Ashley?”

He breathed in long and slow, relishing the memory of how the tank lid felt as it smashed over her head. That dull thud. The jolt that traveled up his arms as a crack spread across the heavy porcelain.

She’d fallen to the floor and the back of her head was almost instantly drenched in blood. But she was still alive, existing somewhere on the borderlands of consciousness, moaning softly every few seconds as her fingers twitched.

He’d drug her into the bedroom then, stripped her, and had his way, timing the punches to her face perfectly with the thrusts of his hips, calling out Polly’s name over and over as the rhythm gained in speed and ferocity.

When he’d finished, she was motionless. Not even the slightest rise and fall of her chest. He’d dressed then and raided the refrigerator, polishing off leftover meatloaf and downing the four beers that were still in the little side compartment.

It was good to be King.

To take what was rightfully his.

On the street, he saw a woman slinking by. Black shoes, black pants, and shirt. For a moment, he simply stood there with his jaw hanging open. It couldn’t be. The clothes were too tight, the t-shirt too plain. It couldn’t be.

But it was.

Polly.

He dropped the beer he was holding and ran for the front door, his heart hammering so loudly that he half expected it to break a rib.

Donna had been fun, but she was nothing more than a cheap substitute. The off brand.

No, what he craved was the real thing.

And now he knew it was right within his grasp.


CHAPTER SIXTEEN

<p>CHAPTER SIXTEEN</p>

She’d broken a window with a large rock that she’d found out near the playground, making sure that she was well hidden from view of the street. She’d had the feeling that she was being followed, that someone was tracking her as if she were a deer in the forest. But every time she’d try to steal a glance over her shoulder nothing was there. She even tried to catch a glimpse in the side view mirror of a parked car, hoping this little trick would reveal whether or not someone was slipping through the shadows behind her. But that disclosed nothing as well, so she’d continued on and chalked it up to nerves.

The neighborhood surrounding the school was chiefly residential which, in turn, meant it had been mostly spared from the looting. There were a few cars with spider web cracks stretching across their windshields, some broken glass littering the sidewalk, a couple of bodies lying in the street; but it was nothing like the other parts of town where the stores were all clustered together and ripe for the picking.

She’d climbed into the darkness of the school and made her way forward carefully, working her way through the labyrinth of rooms until she was in one of the halls. It was so quiet that her footsteps echoed as loudly as if she were wearing heavy boots. No one came running. No doors flew open to reveal murderous rage. But why would they? Who they hell would be in an elementary school at this time of night anyway?

She lit her cigarette, feeling slightly guilty when she noticed the sign on the wall that announced tobacco was prohibited on school property. But that guilt was quickly assuaged when her eyes had become better adjusted to the gloom: when she realized that the hallway was lined on either side with bright yellow tape.

Son of a bitch….

Polly stood, took the last drag from her cigarette, and crushed it out under her heel.

She would find somewhere else then.

Richard’s initial instinct had been to charge at her like a mad bull. To run her down the same way Meathead had done him. But he fought this urge, savoring instead the little game he was playing. She, the dainty little mouse, who kept looking back over her shoulder: afraid and helpless in this big ’ole maze of a city. He, the stealthy cat in the shadows: quick and slinky, master of the domain, perfectly bred for stealth and attack.

After several blocks, he realized that — in his haste to follow her — he’d forgotten to grab his machete when he’d left Donna’s brownstone. But no worries. He could go back for it later. It wasn’t as if he would actually need it. Not for her.

Around the same time it dawned upon him where she was heading. The elementary school. Wasn’t that just like a woman? To worry about the little kiddies when she should be more concerned with saving her own skin?

Oh man, this was going to be too easy.

The classroom was standard issue. Block walls painted some neutral color she’d never bothered to learn the name of. Row after row of desks perfectly lined up. Bookshelves. Learning based posters on the walls and a big chalkboard with the name Mrs. Haversham scrawled across it.

She’d plopped down into the teacher’s chair and looked at the day planner laid out on top of the desk. PTA meeting, 7:30 PM Wednesday. Field Trip-Zoo, 8:30 AM, two weeks from now. Sorry about your luck, Mrs. Haversham, but it looks like we’ve had to clear your calendar. Permanently.

As she swiveled back and forth in the chair, Polly toyed with the little American flags that had been poised on one corner of the desk. They were the type that had two poles jutting out at opposite angles from a single wooden base. Probably made in Taiwan.

Maybe she should rest here for a while. Wait for daylight and plan her next move. Smoke all she wanted or for as long as the pack held out.

Yeah, that might be for the best. There would probably be a lot less assholes to deal with out there by morning.

She stood and walked to the door of the classroom, placed the knife on the little bookshelf beside it, and turned the lock.

She wondered what had happened to Jane? Had her friend made it? Was she still back at the apartment? Or was she running, hiding, trying to find a way out of town?

Polly hoped she wasn’t dead. Jane was one of those rare people you met in life. The kind who actually take time to listen to what you’re saying, to show a sincere interest in how you’ve been doing.

But she couldn’t think about that now. Jane was a distraction. Just have a smoke and try to let it go.

He could see her moving about through the frosted glass of the door. Room 114. She’d just turned and was walking away, her silhouette growing fainter by the second. Probably locked it.

Poor, simple Polly.

Still believing that mere doors and windows were enough to keep her safe.

It was time to teach her a lesson.

One which she would never forget.

Polly had just lit the cigarette when she saw it. A man-shaped shadow outside the door. Dark. Hulking. Growing larger as it approached.

Shit.

Thoughts of Jane had distracted her and she’d left the fucking knife on that little bookshelf. She sprung from her chair at the same moment the glass in the window exploded inward in tiny little chunks that looked like crystalline boulders. They rattled against the floor, not crashing like normal glass, and the elbow that had smashed its way through straightened into an arm. An arm which easily flicked the lock and swung the door open.

Before her stood what appeared to be a monster. Its face was lumpy, bloody and battered beyond belief with lips swollen and split, a nose zigzagging at odd angles, hair matted with gore in some places, slick with blood in others. It’s clothes looked like some sort of tattered fatigues that had been cut and abraded to the point where there seemed to be more holes than fibers. For all intents and purposes, this thing looked like the victim of a fatal car crash who had just decided to pick up and walk away.

It stepped into the room, breathing so heavily she could see its shoulders rise and fall.

At the same time she took a step backward as she glanced around the room, trying to plot a way to circle around and get her hands on that knife.

“Looking for an escape route?”

The voice sounded as if it were speaking through a mouthful of mush. Which wasn’t surprising considering the state said mouth was in. But there was something familiar about that voice….

“No escape for you… not this time.”

She took another step backward, but her eyes stayed trained on the monstrosity before her. Watching for the slightest movement that would indicate the start of an attack.

“Pretty, pretty Polly.”

She gasped.

“Richard?”

The classroom filled with laughter.

“No, baby. I told you. Richard’s dead. Call me Rick. Or Dick. You like Dick, don’t you Polly? I know you do.”

More laughter again.

Seriously creepy deja-vu.

How the hell had he found her?

Her heart thundered like a herd of galloping zebras.

“I was hoping you’d have a message for me.” Richard said. “What a shame.”

He seemed to be speaking directly to her tits. Or maybe her shirt. But why would he do that?

Because he’s bat-shit crazy, dearie. Look at him. You didn’t even recognize him at first. How the hell do you think he got all fucked up like that? Crazy….

Richard stepped further into the room and he seemed to grow larger with each step. It was obvious that he felt powerful, completely in control of the situation. And, in a way, he was. She knew she didn’t have the physical strength to fend off his attacks when they came. She’d been down that road already. No, she needed some way to get to that knife. Some weakness she could exploit.

“I don’t know whether to fuck you and kill you,” Richard said, the words slightly slurred through his busted lips, “or kill you and fuck you.”

His laughter filled the room again as if he’d just told the joke of a lifetime. But it ended as abruptly as if he’d choked it off.

“But maybe I’m thinking I should just outright kill you.”

Polly had backed up to the point that she’d bumped against Mrs. Haversham’s desk.

Richard came closer still and she could now see the large bulge in the front of his pants.

“I’m thinking that might just be the thing to do, you little cock-tease bitch.”

That was it. His weakness. Now, she only had to work it to her advantage. She pushed her revulsion deep down within herself, tucked it away in a cold little spot somewhere behind her stomach.

She slowly wetted her lips with the tip of her tongue.

“Now, dearie, you don’t really want to do that do you? Not before you’ve had a little taste of this.”

She slid her hands seductively along the curves of her breasts, down her sides, to her hips.

There was a sharp intake of breath from Richard and he stopped for a moment.

“I shouldn’t have fought you back there, but I was scared. Because of Jane, see….”

“Jane’s dead.”

The statement was so cold, so as-a-matter-of-fact that for a moment her mind balked. But she knew she had to keep going, had to play this scene out to its final conclusion. They words were hard to say, but necessary.

“Good. Now there’s nothing… no one to get in our way, Richard, and…”

“Richard is dead!” he bellowed.

“I’m sorry, baby. I’m sorry. I’ll call you whatever you want.”

She tried her best to act simpering, subservient. Totally enthralled like a groupie in the presence of a rock star.

Sitting down on the edge of the desk she slipped out of the t-shirt and tossed it to the side. Licked her lips again and leaned back on the cool wood as her fingertips traced circular patterns over her bra. This had better work, God damn it.

“Come on, baby. Let’s do it. I want you inside me.”

For a moment Richard seemed to teeter on indecision. He started forward but then stopped. Started and stopped.

She moaned, really turning up the juice on her performance as she arched her back slightly.

“Oh god, I’m so wet…”

One hand over the mouth. Giggle. Shy. Coy.

“I need you, Richard. I need a big strong man like you in me.”

“I told you, call me….”

“I’ll call you anything you want, sugar, just do me. Do me hard.”

She’d finally pushed him over the edge. He came rushing at the desk and Polly held her breath, waiting to see if he were buying into all of this. Or if he really was coming to kill her.

He towered above her, staring down, practically panting through his nose, eye ablaze with some strange glow she’d only seen that one time before. In the kitchen….

His hand balled into a fist which he pulled up to chest level and his nostrils flared.

But then the hand opened and he was squeezing her breast so roughly it felt as if he were attempting to rip it off her chest.

“Be gentle.” she whispered.

“No. I’ll be whatever I want. Do whatever I want. Which is why I am God and you just another little whore to serve my needs.”

He lowered his face toward her chest, wanting to smell that scent… the wildflowers and spring rain. Never noticing her hand as it crept across the surface of the desk.

“Richard?”

It was a light, sing-song tone but anger flared within him. Fuck it. He should just kill the cunt now.

“I told you, call me… “

His bellow morphed into a scream as Polly rammed the ends of the little flags directly into his eyes. The sharp tips, like tiny spears, ripped into the tissue easily and they were spaced apart just enough so that each one plunged into a separate socket. Blood and some sort of milky white fluid oozed from the twin wounds as Richard reeled backward, screaming in agony.

Ripping the flags out of his eyes, he stumbled about the room, tripping over desks, falling, struggling to regain footing as he slid on pencils and books and loose sheets of paper from the toppled desktops.

Polly skirted around the perimeter of the room, over to the little bookshelf. The knife felt cool and natural in her hand. She watched as Richard spun in drunken circles, screaming repeatedly: You bitch! You Fucking Bitch!

Timing it just right, Polly dashed in and lunged with the knife, driving it deep within his back, near the left kidney. She pulled it out, ducked low beneath his swinging arms, and grasping it’s hilt with both hand, plunged it upward with all her strength.

No words now, only animal howls of pain as Polly stabbed the blade into his groin. Over. And over. And over.

Richard fell to the floor, cupping the shreds of his mutilated manhood and Polly dropped down, driving one knee into his throat. And then the knife was nothing more than a silver blur as it sliced the tip of his nose, jabbed into his cheek, plunged into the gore-filled eye socket.

And then she realized she was screaming, too:

This is for Cody! This is for Jane! This is for me and this is for me and this is definitely for me!”

She stood and kicked him in the side of the head once. And then, pointing the knife downward, she dropped again and the blade disappeared deep into his chest.

He was moving so very slowly now. The life draining out of him. Sprays of blood coming up with his weak coughs. The wheezing sound of chest wounds as he struggled for breath.

She leaned in close to his ear and whispered.

“How bad do you want me now, Richard?”

He tried to say something, to form words, but there was only a gurgle from somewhere within his chest.

“Oh, I’m sorry…”

She gave the knife in his chest a little twist.

“…dick.”

She’d watched him die in that classroom. Had waited to make sure there was nothing he could do, no way that he could wiggle out of this one. But she didn’t have to wait long. By the time two cigarettes had been smoked down to the filter and crushed out on his stomach, he was dead.

Outside, the sun had just begun to rise above the horizon. Time to move on. There had to be a way out of this town. And she would find it, even if it meant swimming ten miles upriver. She would find a way out and would try to reclaim her old life again. Or at least as much of it as she could. Be she would never be the same. She had changed. She knew this.

She reached for the black t-shirt on the desk and was getting ready to pull it back over her shoulders when she paused.

Instead of putting it on, she laid it flat on Mrs. Haversham’s desk and walked to the blackboard where she picked up a piece of chalk. Returning to the desk she scrawled a quick message across the front of the shirt, bearing down so hard that she snapped the chalk twice.

Then she pulled the shirt over her head and walked away from Richard’s mutilated body. He had no eyes to read this particular message, no brain function to interpret it. But that was okay. It wasn’t meant for him anyway. None of it ever was.

Polly stepped out of the school and into the morning sunlight.

The long night was over and, oddly enough, the birds were singing.

But she could still hear the gunfire. Could still smell the smoke and see the out of control flames licking at the skyline.

And she walked toward this warren of chaos, armed only with her knife and a black t-shirt with words scrawled in chalk across the front. Words which gave her hope and reassured her that, no matter what happened, she would find a way to make it out of this hellhole alive. She was smart. She was strong. And her t-shirt said it al BE YOUR OWN HERO.

Bring it on, baby. Mamma’s comin’ home.”


About the Author

<p>About the Author</p>

William Todd Rose is a speculative fiction author currently residing in Parkerburg, West Virginia. His short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Macabre Cadaver, OG’s Speculative Fiction, and the now-defunct Twisted Nipples as well as being featured in various anthologies. His experimental horror novel, "Shadow of the Woodpile" was released in 2009 and he is currently at work on his next project.