Great to be back! Let’s just skip the formalities and go right into...
When morning came I wasn’t ready for it. What little sleep I may have gotten came in the form of that half-in, half-out, apnea-like jerking that wakes you up every time you’re about to go under. I forced myself out from beneath the covers. It still took me a moment to remember where I was. I checked and double-checked to make sure it was real, and then I decided that things were bad enough that it had to be. Hell had frozen over and as the jazz musicians used to say, I was outside. Way outside, man. Way outside.
Jack was already awake, or he hadn’t gone to sleep. Wes was, as usual, defined by a pile of blankets on the floor. I was pretty sure this was going to be one of the worst days of my life, but those had been adding up fast lately, so I hoped I was wrong. When was the last time I’d been right? Every second was at least an hour long, and I was anxious, shaking, and in pain for all of it. Every moment was like fingers on a chalkboard.
Heighten all your senses by ninety percent and then hit yourself in the head with a frying pan, one of those old fashioned, ten pound, iron ones. Hang it over your head by a thread and wait for it to fall. Then try to relax. The whole day was like that. I made the mistake of trying to talk.
“So what’s the plan? Keep heading south? Try to find another place to stay?”
“Maybe a nice hotel. Who knows? Big city out there, just waiting to be claimed.” Jack sounded a little too happy. Maybe in one of his ups.
“Yeah, right, beautiful. And it’s going to be a steamy seventy-below, and all the little snow-gnomes and pixies will be building little gingerbread whorehouses to keep the kiddies warm.” I shut up when I realized my head was under assault. My voice echoed back at me inside my skull. Wes laughed under the blankets.
“C’mon, Holt,” Jack said. “I know you don’t want to count your chickens, but—”
“We don’t have any chickens,” I whispered. “We don’t even have any eggs…” I clenched my jaws, and spoke through my teeth. “If we did—I. Would. Kill. Them. All.”
“I don’t think you can kill anything until it’s actually born,” Jack said.
“I can. I will,” I muttered, my head in my hands. “I’ll kill them for threatening to live.” I was, just maybe, in one of my downs.
“If you never expect anything good to happen, it never will,” Jack said.
He was up. Waaaay up.He handed me some pills for the pain, and we loaded up our gear. Nobody said a word. Finally, Wes broke the silence.
“Look, all we got to do’s keep heading south, find another house every night till we meet Jack’s brother.”
“We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry.” Jack opened the back door, and headed into the cold.
Wes followed him.
I stood in the doorway shielding my eyes. It was like laser beams burning out my retina. Trying not to be a complete pussy, I wandered half blind behind them. The sound of frozen snow crunching with every step like shattered glass under my feet. I wasn’t going to make it.
For a little while my anger carried me. “Fuck this” was my mantra.
About a half-hour later, I could finally focus on what had been glare. It didn’t matter though. Everything was white—the ground, the sky, even the buildings—what the snow drifts didn’t cover, the ice did. Even the sides of the houses were frosted. Jack was moving too fast, Wes seemed to be just strolling along, and I was about to stroke out.
I’d shiver, freezing, and then feel the sweat around my neck under the coat. Then the sweat would burn cold. I’d overheat when the wind stopped blowing and freeze when I stopped moving. Hot and cold flashes, cold sweats, colder everything else. My feet and hands felt numb. Then I’d shiver and wrap the rags around my neck tighter until the next wave hit. Hot, sweat, cold, frostbit. Cold and then numb.
I don’t know how long it took, but later I caught my breath and asked, “Hey guys, slow down a minute. Hold on. Why don’t we just steal a car?”
“Steal a car?” Jack said, sarcastically snapping his fingers and hitting himself in the head with the palm of his hand. “Why didn’t we think of that? Oh yeah, I forgot! We did! The problem is if you stop to look for keys in the window of every car parked in the city, you’ll freeze to death.” He was having fun being a smart ass.
“Get real, Jack. You’re the positive thinker. Even if we don’t find the keys, we can hotwire it.”
“You know how to hotwire a car?” Jack asked.
“Neither do we.”
Cold. Cold. Cold. Trudge. Trudge. Trudge.
Trudge. Cold. Trudge. Cold. Trudge. Cold. Even colder.
Before Jack and Wes had shown up and shattered my version of reality, I had at least been operating under the faulty concept that spring was coming. Now, not only was I aware that I had spent at least an extra three months in this sludge, but I also had no idea when it was going to warm up. My own little crappy neighborhood was now the North Pole—and there was no Santa Claus. Reality sucks. Jack spent the rest of the morning reminding me of that.
In fact, he wouldn’t shut the fuck up. Did I mention he’s manic? He kept going on about how every animal had some part of their brain that responded to magnetism. How the polar switch had made birds dive into the concrete when it first started, because their mental compasses had changed. They couldn’t migrate anymore, not just because of the weather but because of the polar switch. How whales had been getting beached, and had trouble navigating. How even ants would have trouble traveling around inside their anthills.
“Jack, you have a history of schizophrenia, or are all those magnetic waves being aimed at your head? In case you haven’t noticed there aren’t too many anthills around here.” Whatever he had given me for the pain had kicked in, and I could almost talk. Didn’t help my mood any, though.
“Anything you’re seeing is prob’ly in the little green men category at this point, Ein-steen,” Jack answered. “Everything I’m telling you is common knowledge. The point I’m trying to make is that every living thing on earth is affected by the magnetic poles, even humans.”
“And? What’s that supposed to mean?” I said.
“It means everybody’s crazy,” Wes yelled from ahead of me.
“Including us. So what?”
“Everybody else is crazy is what he means, Holt.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
Jack stopped, turned around, and slapped his hands together like he was trying to keep them warm. “What he’s trying to say is that everybody else is as crazy as we ever were. Maybe crazier because they haven’t learned to cope yet.”
“Interesting theory. You get that one from the media, too?”
“Wes came up with it,” Jack deadpanned.
“You guys are aware you’re mentally ill, right?”
“Think about it.” Jack answered. “What if there’s a part of the human brain that responds to the polar shift? Wouldn’t we have an advantage?”
“Or we’d be even crazier,” I said.
“Yeah, but we’ve been dealing with this shit our entire lives. These people,” Jack waved his hand in the air, “they’re just starting.”
I thought about how fucked up I had been when I was first diagnosed. It was a good theory, but it could work both ways. I continued on, shunning optimism as only a trained veteran of clinical depression can.
We kept hiking until I was completely zoned. My face was frozen. And Jack kept talking the entire time. Even if Wes and I didn’t say anything he just kept having a conversation by himself. He knew where there was a hotel right around the corner, he’d say. And then he’d say any hotel around here would have to be a dump. Why would we want to stay in some crappy, single room occupancy fleabag when we had our choice of luxurious Victorian housing right next door? Then we’d pass the place, but by then he was talking about how we probably wouldn’t have to worry about bedbugs.
I tuned out about the time he started ranting about “radioactive rays in the sky at night,” and how we shouldn’t go out after dark. I didn’t connect it with the lights I’d seen taking a piss out the window, and figured if there were such a thing we’d all be dead soon, anyway. Besides, the way things were going, I was probably going to die of a stroke.
My body went on autopilot. My brain went back to the mantra.
Jack and Wes took turns leading us down alleys and streets I didn’t even recognize anymore, all in an apparent effort to get to The Loop in the shortest distance. We cut corners through parking lots and between houses when the terrain wasn’t too bad. The wind hacked up hard and rimed at us. We took cover in an alley, leaning against the buildings for shelter. My body was numb.
“This is ridiculous,” I said. “We got three not-so-upstanding citizens—in a city that’s famous for crime—and nobody knows how to hot wire a car? What kind of menaces to society are you guys?”
“Kind that steals the keys,” Wes said, coming up to the corner of an intersection. “Shut up, think I hear somethin’.”
He crept ahead cautiously, and stuck his head around the corner. Nothing happened.
Crunching toward the sidewalk, he stopped with his arms out like a baseball runner leading off first. He shifted his weight on the balls of his feet and looked both ways.
I’d walked forward to see what he was looking for, when all of a sudden he made a dive for the stairs leading to the building’s basement. In one motion he slid forward and rolled, practically just somersaulted, into the concrete pit that enclosed the stairs. He landed perfectly on both feet next to the door.
I stood there in the open staring at him, confused. That’s when one of the bricks in the wall behind me blew up and chipped at my face. Then I heard the shot. You’re not supposed to hear the bullet that kills you. That woke me up.
I jumped toward the sunken doorway, where Wes had entrenched himself. I was trying to execute his cool little somersault maneuver, but in midair realized I was going to land on my head. One of my feet hit the middle of the staircase, and the other stretched out in front of me in an effort to stay upright. My back slammed into the side wall, and I sort of scraped down, breaking my fall on the outstretched foot and landing on my ass at Wes’s feet. He looked down at me, still unmoving.
“Thanks for the help,” I said, when I was through cursing.
“Tol’ you to shut up,” he said.
“How’d you know somebody was going shoot?”
Wes shot me a feral look, and I shut up just in time to hear Jack’s footsteps running down the alley. He was moving fast for a guy in the tundra.
He was running away.
I dropped my pack behind me, getting up and shifting my shoulder to make sure it was okay as I wiped some blood off my face.
Wes tried the door. It was locked. He started trying to kick it in. No go. It would’ve taken a battering ram and a running start. He took his hat off and held it up over the ledge to see if the guy would take a potshot at it. Nothing happened. Either our gunman was saving his ammo, or he knew better.
When I say nothing happened, I’m lying. Internally, my blood pressure had spiked and I was hoping nobody would notice my knees shaking. I’d completely forgotten about any pain from the fall.
Wes and I glanced at each other, and I ran about halfway up the steps as fast as I could. I was already turning around when I heard the shots fire. The snow on the concrete next to my head did an angry little dance, and I broke the laws of physics getting back down below ground level faster than gravity’s pull.
Neither of us said anything.
I guess we were going to wait it out. Wes pointed at his watch and held out his hand, signaling five minutes. The watch was so beat up I wondered if it even kept time. There was nothing for us to do but wait, though. Maybe the shooter would just get bored. Yeah, right.
Where the hell was Jack? Had he just run off?
We waited some more. If we didn’t wait long enough, we’d just get shot coming out. But the longer we waited, the sooner we’d be boxed in. We might have a chance if we jumped out and the shooter wasn’t ready. You know, like they were daydreaming or distracted. Yeah, they may have the guns but we have the element of surprise. Note to the reader: If the ‘element-of-surprise’ strategy is the best thing you have going for you, then you’re pretty much fucked.
I spent the rest of the five minutes thinking about how lousy it would be to get shot, and adding up the odds of our success in my head. A few minutes later, I leaned next to Wes and whispered, “Your turn.”
Wes didn’t even think about it. He took a few deep breaths and inflated his chest, getting ready. He almost took the first step.
“Motherfucker!” somebody screamed. The sound echoed off icy buildings and down the alley.
Wes stopped and we looked at each other. Neither of us had made a sound. It hadn’t been Jack’s voice either.
“Goddamnit! I’ll kill you, motherfucker!” Whoever-it-was was pissed off and headed in our direction. Wes and I both shrank into the wall. Great, now we were going to be targets for some asshole in a turf war. Fish in a barrel. Cats in a bowl. Everybody was crazy.
Just when I was thinking this particular maniac wasn’t being very sporting, I realized it sounded like he was crying.
“You’re dead motherfucker! Dead! I know who you are goddamnit!” The sound of his steps started past us.
I stuck my head out and saw some blonde kid in camouflage holding the back of his skull, blood seeping between his fingers. He ran right by us and on down the street. He had to have seen me. I got a good look at him. As I was ducking down our eyes met. He wasn’t a kid; at least his face wasn’t a kid’s. He looked to be somewhere in his late thirties, but he was short and had one of those wispy beards that never really grows in.
“I know who you are! You’re dead! Motherfucker!” He ran down the street screaming, sounding and looking like an angry kid.
Wes threw a snowball at him in true take-your-ball-and-go-home fashion. A minute later Jack walked back up the sidewalk with a rifle in his hand.
I was almost happy. “Jack, what did you do to him?”
“Hit him in the head with a piece of concrete. Idiot was sneaking out of that dumpster over there.” He pointed to the lot behind a restaurant.
“He’s pissed,” I said.
“Fuck him. He’s a piss ant.” Jack checked the rifle’s chamber—empty—and threw the gun into the snow. “Seen him before. He was one of the jagoffs that froze that guy over at the fire station, little Nazi.”
So Jack was a bad ass. I’d had no idea.
We walked on down the alley making better time than before.Chapter 14
After skulking around in an alley for a couple of blocks, Jack stopped and pointed at one of the houses. “Okay, Holt, it’s your turn.”
My turn? I looked at him, questioning.
“You got to start somewhere, man.”
“Yeah, by getting us in this house,” he said, leaning up against a rotting fencepost in back of a three-flat. Wes giggled. They were both kicking ice off their shoes like they were already inside.
“Whoa, you want me to commando a SWAT team raid like Wes did on that other house?” I asked. There was no way.
Until they both stared me down.
I would have argued if it hadn’t been so damn cold.
“OKOK, I’ll do it, but I’m going in the front.” I picked up a graying fence slat with a nail in it to use as a club. It looked like somebody might have used it for a weapon before; the rusty nail looked like it might’ve been covered with blood.
Jack and Wes looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. Wes pointed at himself, and then at the ground. He was staying right there in back. Jack grinned, turning his head side to side like he was babysitting a kid who wouldn’t eat his vegetables. I was going in front alone.
I crunched around the house, up the snowdrift front steps and knocked on the door. I realized then why Jack had been turning his head. He knew I had no idea what I was doing. Why go in the front door? Manners? Trying to be polite? Well, yeah, sort of. I felt like if someone was home I didn’t want to scare them to death. It never occurred to me that I was making myself a target.
Nobody answered. I knocked again. I could hardly hear Jack talking from the back of the house, but I distinctly remember the word “stupid.”
The only time I had ever kicked in a door in my life was when I was drunk and couldn’t get into my apartment. Not that I remember doing it. It’s just that I woke up on the floor, and the door had been kicked in. I figured back then I must’ve done it, because I never found my keys.
But kicking in a door in conscious life is a lot harder.
I thought I’d just boot it one or two times and it would fly open like in the media. Didn’t work that way. I must’ve kicked that thing for ten minutes. Both feet. By the time it finally splintered, I knew why I had passed out on the floor in my apartment that time. I was exhausted and covered in sweat, under three layers of clothes, in sub-zero weather.
I forced the door in the rest of the way, leaning my back against it, squeezing my way through. I popped out the other side, fell and hit the floor on my back, stunned.
Something smelled funny. At first I hoped it might be bad plumbing or something. But I realize now I’d known what it was all along. I had smelled it before.
I opened my eyes. This place hadn’t been abandoned. Or at least they hadn’t taken the time to move anything out. Right above me was an antique, roll-top desk—real wood, cubbyholes and everything. On top of it was one of those green banker’s lamps, a vase, and on the wall a mirror shaped like a cross. It was the first place I’d seen with a clean floor in a while.
Then the smell forced its way up my nose again. First time I had ever smelled it was when my mom OD’d. Her rotting body had lain in the house for the better part of a week—the family had to put vinegar in bowls to kill the smell when we went inside. I had smelled it when the guy who lived next to me in an SRO hotel hung himself, and they found the bloated body in the closet two days swollen. They had to call in a specialty crime-scene, clean-up crew to make everything lemony-fresh that time. It was the same smell that had finally forced me to accept the fact that my wife was dead. I had tried to ignore it going into the second day because part of me wanted to pretend she was still alive. I knew that stank alright. Part of me knew what it was, but I kept telling myself it was bad plumbing.
Something moved upstairs—a light tapping sound—not somebody walking, but maybe somebody trying to hide something. Or maybe they dropped whatever they were hiding, because the tapping went across the ceiling over my head. Adrenaline kicked in and I was upstairs fast, kicking the door down like it was balsa wood. I was hoping they were in that second floor bedroom. Whoever it was hadn’t had a plan, or time, to do anything yet.
Then I heard something growl.
It hadn’t been tapping.
I figured out I’d lost the element of surprise about the same time I saw the dog chewing on my balls.
Our eyes locked on each other and I froze. I’d seen it leap, but, startled, all I did was stumble backwards and fall down. Its jaws locked between my legs. The fence slat with the nail in it fell out of my grip and clattered on the floor behind me. Backpedaling on my hands out of sheer reflex, I dragged the dog along with me, its teeth locked in the fabric around my crotch.
That’s when I realized it was mostly fabric and not my crotch in its mouth. If I’d been wearing tighter pants, I’d be talking in falsetto.
Backed up into the wall, I pitched from side to side, trying to find the damn fence slat, or anything else I could grab to defend myself. The dog just kept growling and chewing. And the entire time our eyes were fused, I couldn’t stop staring into the cold, burning blue hell of that thing’s eyes.
The dog let go of the coat, rearing back on its haunches, all fur and fangs. And then lunged at my genitals again. It got some skin on the underside.
I screamed, cringed back into the wall, covering my eyes with my hand so I didn’t have to watch myself get disemboweled.
Fear is a great motivator. Mine must be especially great, because I think I scared the attack dog with all my screaming and flopping around. The fucking mutt just stopped and looked at me sideways, then it growled a little more, telling me to stay put, don’t move too fast. Then, this big-ass, clone job, shepherd-hound-mix-thing, that could have chewed me up like a Frisbee, stopped, sat down, and started whining.
“Good dog,” I said. “Good girl.”
As long as she didn’t have me by the nads, she was a good girl.
In a couple of minutes this thing was wagging her tail, letting me pet her, and whining like she’s Lassie and Timmy’s caught in the well. She had just been playing with me—and I’d been too scared to figure it out. That’s when I felt her ribs. The damned thing was starving. Poor bitch probably weighed about fifty pounds, should have weighed a hundred.
“Oh, man. You poor dog. You poor thing… Tell you what, Thing. I’m going to get up real slow here… And if we can’t get you something to eat… We’ll feed you Jack. How’s that?” She hadn’t met Jack yet, but seemed to think it was a good idea.
Petting the dog, I got up slowly and peeked into the room. All of a sudden, my comments didn’t seem too funny anymore. There was blood spattered on the wall back in the corner. And underneath that, a woman’s body.
The first thing I thought of was that she had been about my age. (It’s always healthy to go identifying yourself with the dead.) There was a hole on the left side of her head, and blood all over the closet floor. The right side of her head didn’t quite look the same shape as it was supposed to. She had shot herself. The gun was still in her hand—tiny little Beretta thing.
It wasn’t the head wound that made me sick. It was what had once been her breasts and the flesh missing around her ribs. What the dog had been eating to survive. Even in death she’s provided for her pet.
I threw up everything. Again. Then I leaned over in the other corner and threw up nothing for a while.
When I was through retching, I skipped the whole commando raid thing and just walked directly downstairs, through the house to the back door. If anybody had been home they had already had plenty of time to hide and plot, and I was going to need help anyway. The Thing followed me into the kitchen, and bounded down the back staircase like we were going outside to play.
I locked her in the basement, thinking maybe she wasn’t such a good dog after all. Then I opened the back door for Jack and Wes.
“It’s clear,” I said. I don’t think I realized I was laughing. “I don’t think anyone alive is in here.”
“Bodies, huh?” Jack said, like I had discovered the apartment had roaches. Until then I don’t think I had realized the trauma that he and Wesley—hell, everybody—had been through.
“Yeah,” I said, smiling. Just keep smiling.
I told Jack and Wes about the body on the second floor. Wes volunteered to go up and search the third floor with me or I don’t think I would’ve done it. The two of us went back through the house. Just making sure nobody was there. I don’t think they trusted me as a point man quite yet, and I can’t blame them. I closed the door to the second floor bedroom and never went back in.
Later, Wes and I slacked off, sitting downstairs on the kitchen floor, while Jack went back up and got the little pistol. She had saved the last shell for herself.
“Well, we finally got a decent gun. Looks like a 22. But I didn’t see any ammo. We’ll look around for it later,” Jack said.
“Too bad, we could’ve used it on the dog—put it out of its misery,” I said from my spot on the tile. “I suppose we could just leave it locked up downstairs.”
“Hey, s’just a dog,” Wes said. “He just doin’ what he can to stay alive.”
“Yeah, well you didn’t just have him gnawing on your testicles for lunch now, did you? Besides, how the hell are we going to feed it? I kind of wanted to hold on to the small supply of human flesh I had left on me.”
“Food really hasn’t been that much of a problem, Holt” Jack said, unloading his pack on the floor. “We can’t just leave it locked up down in the basement to starve.”
Jack was right, but I’d never admit it. “Well, hey, why don’t we just leave Satan’s Little Helper upstairs with the corpse? That is, if you guys think the body is still fresh enough?”
“We took you in didn’t we?” Wes said. “The dog was just doin’ what it had to, to survive,” slow with emphasis on each word. “I’ll go down take a look at him. If he’s not too mean—if he wants to—he’s going with us.
“Why can’t we just leave it some food, and leave?” I said. From the looks I got, you would’ve thought I’d just sentenced Snoopy to the electric chair. “Okay, but we’ve all got too agree it’s not a mad dog. You guys didn’t see the thing—” I started, and then I remembered how docile it had been after I stopped panicking. “All right, all right. Let’s all go downstairs and look at her. It is a ‘her,’ I know that much. But if we end up running out of food, I’m eating the dog.”
I was trying to sound tough—even the dog knew I was a creampuff.