Mitch watched helplessly as his neighbor was ripped apart by a wild pack of the dead. Nearly out of food, his mother demanded he not leave the house in search of more. Mitch, knowing she was sacrificing her health in favor of his, drugged her, and sneaked out of the house anyway. And so, we continue...
Hell Breaks Loose - EP. 2 - "Raise 'yer Can!"
The night air washed over Mitch like a cool shower. It’d been a while since he’d had one of those too. The air smelled…fresh. For a month now, they’d never so much as opened a damn window. The silky air was good- no, great!
Mitch peeked through the door crack and listened. Crickets chirped, night birds sang, and the wind whipped trees and bushes back and forth with a soothing whoosh. It struck Mitch as odd that despite the zombies, life was pretty much the same out here. Like it was all just a human problem.
He listened for a few minutes and heard nothing but nature’s music and a dog’s distant barking.
They don’t eat dogs, either? Maybe he’s a survivor. Survive on poochie!
Mitch wrapped the book bag around his shoulders, tucked the 9mm between his pants and underwear’s waistband, and prayed it didn’t blast his dick off.
Mitch thought it best to stick to backyards, as long as they weren’t fenced in. He didn’t want to do any climbing if he didn’t have to; too loud, yes, sir. Steering clear of streets was the way to go, especially since the power had somehow managed to survive as long as they had, which meant streetlights, which also meant meals on wheels, or feet.
The IGA was two blocks away and he’d have to cross at least two streets sooner or later. He preferred later.
He moved with a burglar-like pace, weaving between bushes and fire pits, ducking below clotheslines and low-lying branches. He nearly bit the dirt when he misjudged the size of a kid’s tricycle and clipped the handle bars with his knee, stumbling and hopping on one foot until he caught his rhythm again. He recognized it as his neighbors, the Stephenson’s. Their daughter, Ashley, used to ride it up and down the street, even if it was snowing or raining. She loved that fucking thing. Mitch wondered where she was, if she was still alive or running around with a pack of those blood-hungry bastards, before moving on.
He hugged the Corbin’s garage, partially in their backyard, but off to the side of the house. The night was freezing, but his body had still found a way to sweat. His shirt clung to his chest and lower back, sticky with cool sweat, and his pits were soaked.
Mitch looked back at his house, now masked by willow trees and bushes, and thought he could be back in his bed in a split if he booked it. It would be easy to just turn back, so easy.
He thought of his crypt keeper mother and knew he couldn’t go back, not empty handed, not if wanted her to make it another week. She was sacrificing herself for him, starving away into a thin film of skin and bones. It was great that she loved him enough to do it, but it was wrong. It was wrong for Mitch to just sit there and accept that, not when he could do something about it.
Mitch stuck his head around the corner of the garage and saw the intersection of First Avenue and Willow, its road littered with potholes and road chunks. A single streetlight beamed soft blue light on the junction. Beyond that, the IGA stood one block further in the iridescent glow of its yellow and red sign. The owner had re-done its parking lot three months prior and the newly paved, sleek black surface reflected like an ocean of blue-black pavement waves.
The dog’s barking once again echoed through the still night. It sounded further away now that he’d crossed through the backyards of his block. He took a deep breath, getting a whiff of something wretched in the air, something moist, and dead.
Mitch pulled the gun free from his pants and counted to three. Once he got running, he wasn’t going to stop. It was a straight shot to the grocery store, and, quite frankly, he didn’t want to stop in case something caught wind of his sprint.
“One…two…” Mitch whispered to himself. He took one quick glance around, ensuring there were no zombies. “Three!”
He was off, huffing and puffing, arms flailing through the cool air. The book bag bobbed up and down, bouncing off his ass with polyester slaps. The zipper clinked against the metal teeth of its track. It was the only sound he could hear over his own breathing. The freezing air scratched his throat and lungs. His chest went tight. Sweat skittered down his brow and cheeks, streaking down to his ass.
He sprinted through the blue light of the streetlight, up along Willow. He passed empty homes with broken windows, weeded lawns. The whacks of his sneakers on the smooth pavement bounced off the abandoned houses and into the night and he was sure something out in the world could hear it.
Please, God, if you're taking requests, I don’t wanna’ use this gun!
Mitch pushed through the tightness of his chest, passed his burning legs pumping battery acid into his thighs. The sneakers weren’t soft anymore. The flats of his feet throbbed with a warm ache. He should have been exercising instead of watching people across the street being pulled apart.
He ran through the Iroqouis Federal drive through, which only a two months prior added Clifton’s first ATM. Too bad no one would ever get to use it, Mitch thought. He crossed the street and ran through the IGA’s parking lot. On an average day, you’d have found at least three cars parked in the furthest spots. The owner’s of course, a cashier’s car, and a stock boy’s car. Now, there were none. Mitch, of course, didn’t notice, or care as he darted toward the entrance.
He ran in place, to keep the momentum going (the adrenaline that pumped through his body was a nice addition, best to keep that going too), while the automatic door creaked itself open with a hydraulic WHOOSH.
He slid inside before the door fully stopped. The gun clacked as it bounced off the metal frame of the door. Mitch forgot he’d even been carrying it in his hand.
“Oh, man,” Mitch whispered to himself. He propped himself against a display of charcoal by the front door. He leaned down and dry heaved thin strands of spit. The stench was unbearable. It smelled like vegetable road kill baked in the desert on high. Forget the high setting, try the volcano setting you see in cartoons.
He wiped stray puke on his shoulder and stood straight, eyes watering.
He could hear an entire air force of flies feeding off the rotted vegetables, maggots probably not far behind.
A deep darkness caked the quiet store. A couple aisles in, overhead, a fluorescent light flickered, humming softly. But he’d been in here plenty of times to know his way around.
Still couldn’t 'a hurt to bring a flashlight, he thought to himself as he took a few steps further inside. He stopped and listened. He’d gotten pretty good at listening, picking out the sounds that didn’t belong. Aside from the soggy writhing of maggots ahead in the produce cooler, and the muffled buzzing of flies, nothing seemed out of place.
The store itself was no bigger than a large house. It didn’t need to be with a population like Clifton’s. But there was a butcher and a baker to keep the town full of fresh meat and breads.
Mitch slipped the book bag from his shoulder and took a lighter from the cash registers last minute shopper’s shelf.
He lowered his nose into the collar of his shirt as he passed the produce cooler. He didn’t want to have another dry heaving fit. He wanted to be in and out, lickity split.
The buzzing of flies grew closer, louder, droning like a motorboat. Mitch flicked the lighter to life and almost lost his lunch for the second time. A section of lettuce had purpled and shriveled, growing grey hairs the size of wild grass blades. Cucumbers had bloated and split open with green goo and pools of wiggling maggots. Everything else had withered into a film of mush and gray fuzz. Another month or two, Mitch was sure the cooler would get up and walk away on fuzzy gray legs. The stink intensified. It smelled like death and rot. He supposed that’s how everything would smell now, dead and putrefying. It burned, stinging his watery eyes. Mitch thought about lighting his nostrils on fire, would probably smell better anyway. A black cloud swayed above the rotten mush, buzzing and darting back and forth. It moved as a collective, with one mind, with stray dots swirling around its edges.
Mitch got his fill of the nauseating sight and moved on to the last aisle, the canned goods.
Orange light flickered against the hundreds of cans from his lighter. He thought he heard his stomach grumble as he began shoving corn, beans, and ready-made pastas into his bag. This was easy, easy peasy, he thought as he piled in ravioli, spaghetti-O’s, and soups. The hollow thunking of cans sounded like stomach-full music.
She’ll be mad, at first, but it’ll pass when she can actually eat without worry, when she remembers what it’s like to have a full stomach, the kind that makes you sit back and wanna take a nap. She’ll be so proud. Dad would be proud.
The droning of the flies faded as Mitch filled his bag to the top.
Running won’t be as easy, but that’s what the gun is for.
Mitch tucked the gun back into his pants and set the bag on the floor. He grunted, fighting the zipper through the entire track from start to finish. It stopped a few inches from being shut and wouldn’t budge any more. All right. I can deal with that, Mitch thought, swinging the bag over his shoulder. It slammed into his side with a harsh momentum. The edge of a can stabbed him right in the kidney, and for a second he had a really bad urge to piss.
He walked around the other side of the aisle, passing the meat cooler. He readied himself for an even nastier scene. There was nothing. It was empty. Pink mesh liner covered a white metal grating, but no ground chuck, round, or porterhouses. He looked up at the butcher’s window standing tall over the cooler but saw only his reflection and the orange flicker of the lighter. He doubted it at first, having heard no evidence of such, but thought he saw movement behind the fiberglass window. It lasted no longer than a second, a blink of an eye, but there was just enough of a change in setting to unease Mitch. Suddenly, something wasn’t right.
He turned and run-walked toward the front door, cans bobbing and clunking together. He glued his vision to his feet, focused on the pitter-patter of his footsteps on the dusty floor. It sounded good to be in motion, would sound even better outside, would sound the best in the laundry room of his home.
No tripping, Mitch. Gotta’ be on your game here, sir.
Halfway through the baking aisle, on a whim, he looked up. He wished he hadn’t, God Almighty, he wished he hadn’t.
A man, silhouetted by fleeting moonlight, stood at the end of the aisle, arms at his sides. He ranked at around six foot tall, and even in the dark, Mitch could tell he had quite a belly on him. He had a white cloth draped over him, and as he started to walk forward, Mitch recognized it as an apron, with dry blood stains crusted on it.
The man walked at a crawling pace and in silence. His footsteps pounded the floor. Definitely some meat on those bones.
Mitch’s hands and feet were paralyzed. His brain said ‘GO!’ but his body said ‘Come again?’ Mitch felt his heart beating in his throat.
“Whaddaya want!?" Mitch screamed. The man ignored him, continuing his crawling pace. “Hey!” He took a step back. “I’m talkin to you!”
The dark figure grumbled something softly, something to himself.
“What!?” Mitch shouted.
The gun! You stupid fuck, the gun!
Mitch dropped the bag of cans to the floor and shuffled both hands down his pants for the 9mm. The man’s footsteps quickened in response. Cans of soup and vegetables spilled from the toppled book bag, rolling every which way.
Mitch pulled the gun free and shoved it outward. Both hands had a death grip on the handle. One finger hung dangerously over the trigger.
Mitch heard something metal scooped from a shelf and only had a second to see a can of evaporated milk, the big sixteen ouncer, spiraling through the air, end over end, on a direct path with his peepers. He heard a hollow clunk rattling throughout his skull, but didn’t see it. He didn’t see anything. Darkness encompassed him on all sides, death on all sides. Then…nothing. He felt like he was falling, remembered screaming, then shouted himself awake.
Mitch opened his eyes and felt like he’d gone one too many times on the Tilt O’ Whirl. His stomach churned with hot nausea. The room spun in a circle of hazy and doubled, fuzzy images. His mouth felt like a dry Arizona summer, and the air in the room wasn’t much cooler than a humid locker room shower. His eye had puffed to the size of a golf ball and it pulsed with a dull but annoying ache. Dried crusted blood lined his eyelid.
The light hanging directly above him flickered and clicked, reminding Mitch of the sound a moth makes when it bumps a light bulb.
When the room slowed down, Mitch realized he was facing the ceiling, lying on a steel table. Each of his limbs were bound to a leg of the table with twine, stretching his body into a large, open X. The knots scraped into his ankles and wrists with itchy pain.
Mitch lifted his head. The cords of his neck bulged, straining to keep his head aloft. His nostrils flared and the rusty stench of the room clung to his nose hairs. He knew it wasn't rust he was smelling, it was the coppery stink of old-blood.
He was looking directly through the butcher’s window, but on the opposite side he’d been looking through earlier. How long ago was that, he thought. He looked around but didn’t see a clock.
Oh, God! Mom!
He tugged and kicked, testing the twine. His shirt clung to his pits and back. Sweat drenched his forehead.
God knows how long his mom had been drugged for, and if she was awake, she’d probably given birth to a horse by now. She’d be pacing the house from top to bottom, if she had the energy, telling herself ‘He’ll be home in a minute, just another minute more.’
The twine didn’t budge. He tried harder, thrashing his restricted fists into the air. The table shifted and rocked. The bindings strummed like a plucked guitar string. Its stray threads glowed in the stinging light from above, but refused to give, even a smidge.
Mitch’s body went limp. His hands and feet slapped the table top with humming metal clangs. He fought to catch his breath but his lungs felt like they were on a fifteen minute break. Frustrated tears leaked from his wandering eyes.
'Believe you me, Mitch, walking outside is a fool’s game.’
In all her starving wisdom, she was right. Mitch sobbed. Globs of spit shot over his lips.
There was a cleaving void in his gut, steadily filling with fear and worry. He had no idea what was going on, and it scared the piss out of him. He didn’t care about the welt his mom’s ring would leave on his cheek. He just wanted to be home, dying on his own terms.
He looked to his right and saw a steel swinging door with a darkened plexi-glass window near the top. It was scuffed and smudgy, must have taken some beatings in its time.
A pair of hefty footsteps stomped from beyond the swinging door, driven by purpose. Then Mitch remembered the can that whopped him a good one, and the dark round figure at the end of the aisle.
He made a last ditch effort to free himself but made no purchase. The waterworks were flowing now. His cheeks were puffed and salty with tears. He grunted and pitched his body back and forth like a wild animal. The twine pulled his skin raw. He gritted his teeth, fighting through the ripping skin, trying to pull his hands free. He stopped when he became light headed, his vision blurring again.
“Easy, easy, kiddo!” A jovial, full-bodied voice said.
A marshmallow of a man opened the swinging door with his blubber butt, holding his hands in front of him like a doctor about to perform surgery. He waddled over to a sink, out of Mitch’s view, body jiggling like a tray of jell-o shots. His hands were a bright crimson, soaked in gleaming blood.
“Dudn’t that hurt, whuppin' around like that?” he laughed.
Mitch went still like a deer caught in the headlights of a trucking semi, glaring. He followed the man’s voice with his eyes, using his ears as his sight. He sniffled to keep the snot from running down his cheek, but otherwise stayed quiet.
“It’s good timing that you’re awake, actually. What’s yer name?” the man asked.
He walked to the edge of the table and looked down at Mitch, towering over him. He wiped his hands with a dry dish rag, managing nothing more than to spread the blood around.
The man smiled.
“All business then, huh?” he chuckled. “That’s A-okay in my book. A-okay, Mr. Gray! My wife used to say that I don’t talk enough," he said with a wink at Mitch. “Sometimes there’s just nothin to say. Oh, and by the way, sorry for the can earlier. I just…well…I don’t much like shoplifters. No, suh! Did you know, shoplifters in Iraq, before the tootin war, of course, would get their hands cut off for a good ‘ole five finger discount? Yup, right dang down the wrist! Leave ya' nuthin' but a bloomin' nub of hand” He smiled again. “You gotta shiner all right, but it’s lookin pretty easy. It'll be a nasty bruise, though.”
The man disappeared behind Mitch’s view again. He tossed the dirty rag into the chrome sink.
"If you could just bear with me for a few minutes, we'll get started shortly," the man said, glancing at the watch on his hairy wrist. "The customers will be here soon."
He smiled to himself.
Tune in NEXT Sunday for Episode 3 - "Were you raised in a barn?"