He snapped awake and saw that he was in his own bed. Thank Christ! The hotel room was just a lingering nightmare. But it was still dark. Why did he wake up? His head was pounding, but that wasn’t it. Hell, if he hadn’t already figured out how to sleep through hangovers, he wouldn’t have had a moment’s sleep in twenty years.
Had it been a noise? Were the kids next door fighting again? He lay there for some time, listening, but everything was quiet. Well, maybe one of them had finally ended the tumultuous relationship with a poker, and he’d been stirred awake by the thud of a body hitting the floor. They both seemed like nice guys, but Mason thought it oddly satisfying that gay couples could be stuck in as bad a shit-storm of a relationship as anyone else.
He rubbed his eyes and checked the clock beside him. He saw a dark lump that had to be the clock, but it was dead. Oh well, he thought, it was only a 20 buck Walmart special, easily replaced. He rolled over to check the clock on the other side— Becks’ side, he remembered with a grimace, and saw that it was dead too.
Damn! Power outage. Probably some dick with a snootful piled his car into a power pole. Thanks, dick, Mason said to himself and climbed awkwardly out of bed. He put a finger to the blinds and had his first look at the outside world in nearly a week. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t some dick with an over-powered muscle car going all Dominic Toretto after polishing off his first bottle of Zima all by himself. The whole city was dark. Probably some dick at PG&E asleep at the switch.
Thanks, dick, he thought again.
He went to the kitchen and instinctively flipped the light switch, then he sighed and rolled his eyes at his own stupidity. He looked to the microwave to find the time, then he mused over how inane human beings were in the face of change. What next, he thought, shall I turn on the TV to see why the power is out? He found his cell phone where he’d left it six days ago and grudgingly turned it on. Sure enough, it still had a full battery, but with no active cell towers to tie into, it didn’t show the time. He’d thought that maybe the clock was internal, so at least he couldn’t fault the human condition for this one. It was a lack of understand, is all.
The little telephone icon showed a backlog of fourteen voicemails. Fourteen, for the love of God! What, the world couldn’t get by without him for a week? He considered playing them one by one, but he knew it would either be work asking him to come back early or well-wishers calling to see how he was doing, and he had no stomach for either. One of them might be from Becks, he considered, but he didn’t have the stomach for that either. Besides, with the power out, he had no choice. He put the phone to sleep to conserve the battery and went to the bathroom. Again, he flipped the light switch, then he cursed aloud.
Rather than take a chance at splashing his business all over the floor, Mason put a match to one of Becks’ votive candles on the edge of the tub. After emptying his bladder more or less accurately, he gathered up the other three candles and carried them to the kitchen. He lit one from the other and soon had a dull glow to light his way around the apartment. As far as he could tell, it was the only part of the entire relationship that had any lingering benefit.
“Thanks, Becks,” he said aloud, “The light of my life.”
Just then, he remembered the wall clock in the entranceway. It was battery-operated. He could hear it ticking away in the harsh stillness around him. He went to the entrance, rolled his eyes again, then went back to collect one of the candles.
4:00 o’clock. Okay, at least he could orient himself now. He returned to the kitchen and pulled a bottle of Dasani water from the bottom shelf. Thank God, it was still cold. That meant that the power hadn’t been out for long, so the stuff in the freezer would be okay for a while. He opened the bottle and drank the cool water in one long swallow.
4:00 o’clock. His vacation days were gone, and he was due to clock in at work at seven. There was no point in trying to sleep any more, and honestly, he’d spent enough time in the past few days enjoying cat naps in the front of the TV or passing out in bed for 12 hour stretches that he figured he was all slept out anyway. Maybe he’d even show up at the works yard half an hour early and surprise the hell out of everyone. No doubt, they’d expect him to drift in late on his first day back, so let them be astonished and bewildered at his perceived work ethic, and they could suck on that for a while.
But just to set the record straight, the first person to mention Becks or the wedding or the honeymoon might just get a bloody nose. And when the big shots called him on the carpet for assaulting a coworker, he’d show them the news stories about the mystery man who’d helped land a of planeload of idiots, and wouldn’t the papers just salivate at the chance to interview the genuine hero who’d helped save countless lives and was then sacked for showing obvious signs of PTSD?
Smiling now, Mason carried two of the candles to the bathroom and braved a quick shower. Once the water started to get truly frigid, he quickly washed away the last of the soap, dried himself, and dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. Then he went to the fridge, found some leftover pizza, and had a breakfast of sorts. He filled the next hour by collecting empty bottles and cans from around the apartment and washing a sink full of dishes, and as the sun started to rise, he finally peeked through the blinds for his first real look at the world since arriving home.
Apparently, the ant-people were in hiding. It was all quiet down below. The street fronting the building was empty most nights, so it wasn’t surprising, but there should be some traffic on the major roads a few blocks away. Okay, there were a few sets of double pinpoints of light at a distance, but they weren’t moving. Probably newspaper men dropping off their bundles, or cabbies picking up their fares.
He had vague memories of sounds wafting up from down below and impinging on his sanctuary over the past few days, but he’d purposefully ignored them. He’d heard car horns and raised voices and the odd screeching tires, but he’d made a deal with himself that nothing was going to intrude on his little island of bliss, so he’d dismissed it all, cranked the music louder, and tuned out everything beyond his four walls.
Only now, he began to wonder what he’d missed. It was odd that there was no traffic roaring past. By this time of day, there should be a whole line of lights streaming toward the 101. Had someone declared a national holiday or something? As he gathered up his wallet and keys and slipped his cell phone into his back pocket, his mind kept returning to one idle thought.
What the hell did I sleep through?
The hallway was dark. Two pale yellow emergency lights were still on; just bright enough that Mason could make out the exit sign over the stairwell. As he passed the elevators, he noted a smeared handprint on the wall, and he cursed whichever of his neighbors had been such an ass, even as he wondered what kind of drunken revelry ends with a handprint in strawberry jam on a wall.
Goddam humans, he cursed to himself.
He pushed his way into the stairwell, letting the door close with a bang behind him, then he peered down into a column of blackness and sighed. Sixteen floors. It wouldn’t be fun, but at least he was going down instead of up. The power’d just better be on by the time he got home, or there was gonna be hell to pay down at PG&E.
He started down and used the light from his phone to read the numbers on the wall as he went. 12, 11, 10… ..Suddenly, the silence was broken from somewhere down below. There was a scuffling, a curt little yelp, and a heavy thud. His immediate thought was that someone had missed a step, maybe barked a knee, and had howled in pain. Taking the hint, he slowed his descent and held onto the railing for good measure…. . 9, 8, 7… …..Somewhere between the 7th and 6th floor, an absolute tumult echoed up through the dark. Sounds of a fight, close by. One floor below. Curses, thuds, shouts, grunts, then a shrill, frantic scream that went on and on and on.
This wasn’t someone tripping over his own feet, it was something more. That scream was the desperate howl of someone dying!
Despite his actions on the plane, Mason knew he was no hero. Sure, he’d milk that story for all it was worth, but in his heart, he was just like everyone else. If he could save a life by making a phone call or reading numbers from a control panel, that was one thing. What was going on one floor down was something else entirely. This was someone fighting for their life. And losing! Was there any point in stepping into a scene like that? Isn’t that the part of the movie where the \Good Samaritan stumbles in and takes a chainsaw to the face?
Mason backed up a few steps and unlocked his phone, then silently cursed himself when he remembered the lack of service. And then he listened.
Rough scrabbling. The moans finally dying away altogether. Then an indistinct wet sound, like moist tissue paper tearing.
Whatever the sounds represented, it was close. He leaned over the railing, but could see only darkness. At last, he brought up his phone and aimed the screen downward. The soft, ambient glow cast a dull light over the scene; just enough to make out two hunched figures. One was laying on his back, and the other looked to be hovering overtop. Maybe he’d been mistaken. Maybe someone had fallen, and a passerby was administering first aid. If so, then maybe Mason could do something after all.
The light should have caught the attention of the man on his knees, but it hadn’t. Still uncertain of what exactly he was seeing, Mason passed carefully down to the next level so that the scene was directly before him and one short flight down.
At last he could make out who was who. The man on his back was in shorts and a t-shirt. Another man in a flowered shirt was bent over him performing mouth-to-mouth. He was bent low over the other man, giving him the kiss of life. So, it hadn’t been a fall, after all. It had been a heart attack or a stroke. Okay, at least this was within Mason’s wheelhouse. He didn’t know anything about CPR and had no wish to share saliva with another man, but there was something he could do.
He shone his weak light on the scene as he raced down the last flight of stairs, shouting, “Hey, keep at it! I’ll run down and call an ambulance!”
Immediately, the man in the flowered shirt lifted his face and turned to Mason. Blood poured from the man’s mouth and dripped from a grizzled grey beard onto a shirt stained red down the front. Mason’s eyes went to the man in the shorts, and he saw a throat that more resembled raw hamburger than human anatomy. A pool of blood grew lazily out from the fallen man, and he stared at the ceiling with the hollow eyes of a dead man.
“Jesus fuck!” Mason howled, backing up several steps.
The man in the flowered shirt climbed awkwardly to his feet and bared his teeth. To Mason, it looked as if he’d just interrupted a wolf in the middle of its meal. The man’s teeth were red, and blood formed frothy little bubbles at the corners of his mouth, but it was the man’s eyes that froze Mason’s blood in his veins. They were empty, blank, completely devoid of anything that was ever human. The crazed man looked up at Mason, his eyes fixed clearly on Mason’s chest, then he was on him in a flash!
The madman sprinted up the steps in a rush. Instinctively, Mason threw out a leg and struck the man squarely in the chest. The man dropped back and fell to his knees, but he was quickly back up in a crouch. Mason expected another attack, but the madman simply squatted there and swiveled his head from side to side like a radar dish looking for a signal. Of course. The eyes. They were utterly blank. And he’d paid no attention to the light. Obviously, this man was blind. He couldn’t see Mason, and now he’d lost his sense of bearing. Slowly, Mason backed up another step, but his heel scuffed on the concrete and the man’s head immediately flicked toward the sound. Then he jumped to his feet and tore up the steps, howling like an animal.
Mason brought his foot back up and forcibly kicked the man away. The man clawed at the air, and one hand narrowly missed grabbing onto Mason’s trouser leg, then he fell backward, landing atop the dead man in the shorts. Once again, the creature was on his knees immediately, swinging his head from side to side. This time, Mason froze in place. He drew in a slow lungful of air and held his breath, then he moved not a muscle. Sure enough, after a handful of seconds that seemed an eternity, the crazy man gave up. He uttered an annoyed huff, then crouched down and settled his face back into the dead man’s throat. There was a wet crunching sound, and Mason felt bile rise up in the back of his throat.
Mason’s mind was in a state of utter confusion. What should he do? Go back up? Go down and call the cops from a landline in the lobby? If there was a second staircase in the building, the decision would have been an easy one, but this stairwell was the only way down.
And then he had a crazy, dangerous thought. The man in the flowered shirt was blind, to be sure. If he was very careful, maybe he could sneak past him without making a sound, and the madman would be none the wiser. The more Mason considered the idea, the more he realized that it was the only way. But if he actually did this, he had to do it without making a sound. Not a single, solitary sound. No scuffing of a shoe, no jingling of keys in his pocket, not a whisper of a breath.
He could feel his pulse thundering in his ears as he held his breath and took the first step down. He moved with excruciating slowness, holding the railing tight, and bringing the toe of his sneaker down ever-so gently. Once settled on that foot, he moved his hand to a new spot, shifted his weight accordingly, and took one more step down. Now he was just five steps above the widening pool of blood. The man in the flowered shirt looked up, and Mason froze like a statue. The creature listened for a moment, then disregarded the sound and resumed feeding, tearing away meat from deep within the man’s throat and wolfing it down hungrily.
Mason saw exposed bone and felt sick to his stomach, but he lowered himself down another step as gently as a leaf falling on grass. But nearly a minute had passed by now and his lungs were burning in his chest. He wouldn’t be able to hold his breath much longer. He descended another step and froze, and again the monster in the flowered shirt stopped and listened.
He couldn’t keep this up. His chest was on fire. He had to get clear. And then he had an idea. It was a ridiculous notion; a clumsy take on an old movie chestnut, but he was quickly running out of options. He brought his phone up slowly, and took aim at the corner of the stairwell behind the creature. Then he screwed up his courage, steeled himself to run, and lobbed the phone high over the man’s head.
The phone crashed into the wall and clattered to the floor. The madman in the flowered shirt immediately leapt to his feet and charged toward the sound, and Mason wasted not a second. He released his breath in a gush and hurled himself down to the landing and around the corner. Of course, the crazy man heard this new louder sound behind him and spun around to grab at whoever it was, but Mason was already around the corner and launching himself down the next flight of stairs three at a time, and all the man caught was air.
Even as he ran, he could hear the madman pounding down the stairs after him at a run. He reached the next platform, grabbed the railing and used it to pivot his body in a fluid swing around the corner and ran on. He didn’t spare a second to look back, but he was certain the sounds behind him were growing louder. He was losing ground, and the lunatic would be on him any second. But no sooner had he come to that horrible conclusion than there was a series of sodden thuds behind him, and one loud crack!
Mason threw himself down one more flight before realizing that the sounds behind him had ceased. He flew down one more flight to be sure, and only then did he turn to look back. He finally stopped, put his hands on his knees, and gasped for air as if he’d just run a marathon or three.
The crazy man had missed a step and fallen. Hard. He was crumpled up at the bottom of the stairs one flight up, and even in the poor lighting, Mason could see his head lolling at an awkward angle. He stood there for some time, gazing up at that horrible bloody face and panting like an asthmatic. His head pounded and his chest ached, but he was alive.
Another win for Mason Tenby….. he thought crazily.
But then another sound came to him. It was like someone whispering from far away. Was the man in the shorts somehow still alive? Was he trying to call for help even now? Cautiously, Mason padded slowly up a few steps and stopped just short of the madman. It wasn’t the poor bastard with the throat like hamburger making that sound, it was the crazy guy with the flowery shirt all red with blood. He was trying to speak, but all that came through was a gurgling growl from deep in his throat. Good God, the madman was still alive!
Mason backed down a few steps and prepared to run, but stopped himself again. The madman wasn’t moving. The crazy lilt of his head told Mason everything he needed to know. The lunatic’s neck was broken. He wasn’t going anywhere under his own power ever again. How he managed to keep breathing was a mystery to Mason, but that was one for the doctors and the cops to figure out.
A feeling of utter relief washed over his body. He could finally breathe and relax. The drama was over. And suddenly, an absolutely ludicrous thought popped into his head. His cell phone. His brand new smart phone that had cost him a week’s salary. It was barely two months old and had all of his contacts in it. It also had a week’s worth of voicemails. Yeah, okay, those things were probably in the cloud and could be transferred to a new phone, but he also had a bunch of pictures of Becks and him together. No matter how things were now, he couldn’t lose those pictures. Not like this. Not yet. Not now. The cops who came to collect the nutjob would get it back to him, sure, but they’d be in no rush. It might take weeks. Months, even. Maybe they’d even stuff it in an evidence box in a dark corner of a warehouse and forget all about it. And so, in spite of just witnessing a murder and barely escaping the homicidal maniac responsible, the only thought in Mason’s addled mind now was that he wanted his phone back.
He padded softly to the landing and saw the madman unmoved. He was still in a crumple, one platform up. Mason moved slowly and softly and heard the guy gurgling and sputtering. It’s your fault….. he thought sardonically, that’s what happens when you eat and run. At last, Mason was standing over the wreckage that was once a man, and he marveled at how the thing still clung to life. The man’s head was turned almost completely around, like some kind of cartoon animal. And yet, as Mason stepped closer, the man’s jaws opened and he growled. Mason jumped back, then he stood there positively dumbfounded as the man snapped his jaws, gnashed his teeth, and growled like an unholy beast.
He left the awful scene behind and went two flights up to collect his phone from an even worse one. After stepping gingerly over a widening pool of blood and averting his eyes as best he could, he passed back down, stopped long enough to wipe a smear of blood from the back of the phone on a clean corner of a flowery shirt, and made his way down to the main floor. There, he stepped into a lobby as black as pitch. He couldn’t see a blessed thing, but he heard some scuffling near the elevators. He aimed his cell phone in the general direction of the sound, but the light was too weak to see anything.
He called out, “Harv?” and the sounds ceased. After his recent scare, he had an insane vision of the guy in the flowery shirt crouched in the corner, stopping his feeding momentarily and lifting his head at the sound. He made ready to call the doorman’s name again, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. Finally, he quickened his pace and hurried for the front door.
Harv was nowhere around. There was a landline on a table near the door, but when he lifted the receiver and put it to his ear, he found that the line was dead. Damn it! Well, maybe Harv was down the sidewalk in that little alcove where he thought no one could see him stealing a quick smoke. If so, Mason would tell him what’d happened, then he’d go find a pay phone. If the pay phones were out, he’d flag down a cop. If a cop didn’t drive by, he’d grab a cab to the police station. Or maybe he’d just stand on the street corner screaming bloody murder.
He pushed through the door onto the street, and his mind immediately flashed back to when he’d been aboard the airplane. The street was utter chaos. It was like stepping into a movie mid-scene, and the sheer spectacle of it took his breath away. People were running. People were screaming. Others were running and screaming. A woman tore past him, her high heels clicking a frantic staccato on the sidewalk. A man was chasing her, close behind. He had the same bloodied chin, and the same dead eyes as the guy in the flowery shirt. Without thinking, Mason stuck out a foot, and the man tripped over it and fell to the ground. The man skidded to a stop and climbed quickly to his feet, his nose mashed into a bloody pulp and several teeth left behind on the sidewalk, but he ignored his injuries and simply stood there, swinging his head from side to side.
It was just like the guy in the flowery shirt. This madman was listening. Mason hitched his breath in his throat and stood perfectly still. Unless the bastard could hear Mason’s heart pounding out a Gene Krupa beat in his chest, he wouldn’t find his next victim here. The woman in the heels swiftly disappeared around the corner, and Mason silently hoped she’d make it home.
A fat man across the street wasn’t having as much luck. He was on his back, throwing ineffective punches at a face buried in his abundant abdomen and uttering plaintive gurgles that may or may not have been pleas for help. The crazy man he’d tripped picked up on the sounds and suddenly dashed across the street. His threw himself down beside the other lunatic, and Mason suddenly felt like he was watching a scene on Animal Planet where two lions shared a carcass. The two madmen snarled at each other, growling and gnashing their teeth, then they both bowed their heads and resumed to their meal.
A little man raced down the street in the opposite direction. He was stumbling awkwardly, flailing his hands in front of him. There were three people on his tail; two men and a middle-aged woman. Just then, the little man stumbled over a curb and went down. He groped along the ground for a few yards and finally began to climb to his knees, but one of the men was on him just that fast. The creature tore at the man’s ankle with his teeth, but the man managed to deliver a solid kick to the assailant’s face and clambered back to his feet. Hobbled now, the others were able to close in on him like jungle predators. Mason took a few faltering steps forward, but there was no point in trying to help. The man ran directly into the back end of a parked car, and as he pawed desperately at the obstacle, the others attacked. He fell to the ground under their weight, and the attackers ripped into him like a starving family of hyenas. In seconds, his guts were exposed and hung from his abdomen like a string of fat, greasy sausages.
Suddenly, a car skidded around the corner and roared through the scene. The sound was such that it attracted the attention of every insane creature in the street, and they all rose to their feet and charged headlong at this new sound. A woman came out of nowhere, waving her arms and yelling at the car to stop, but it didn’t. It raced past Mason and headed straight down the middle of the road. The three who had taken down the little man ran toward the sound, and the car swerved directly into them. The men fell away to either side, and the woman bounced up and over the hood, cleared the roof, and crashed down behind the car. An arm reached out through a side window of the car, someone inside whooped crazily, and the car sped off around the corner and out of sight.
The woman’s skull had been dashed to pieces with the impact, so she would never move again, but one of the men had suffered only a broken leg, and he climbed awkwardly to his knees and listened. The woman who had screamed for the car to stop was still stumbling down the street, following the receding echoes with her arms extended in front of her. As her shoes clicked loudly on the pavement, the injured man took to stumbling after the sound. The woman bumped into the side of a building and took to groping along the wall toward the far corner, then she rounded the corner and was out of sight, and the last Mason saw of the lunatic with the broken leg was when he hobbled around the corner after her, following the sound of clicking heels and soft plaintive sobs. Behind him, the other man who’d been struck by the car followed at distance; back broken, but dutifully crawling along on his elbows, gnashing his teeth, and dragging his useless legs behind him like a grotesque pull-toy.
Mason thought he must have awoken into a nightmare. This can’t be happening, he kept telling himself. This can’t be happening…….this can’t be happening… ….this can’t be happening….…. But there was no denying it. It was happening. And it was happening all around him. A scream came from an open window across the street. As Mason watched, two dark forms converged, a splash of blood colored the fine lace curtains, and the screams died away as the dark figures sank from view. Another scream from down the street ended in a squelched gurgle. A man emerged from an alley a block away, staggering like a drunk and holding his intestines in his hands. Three different people came from three different directions, converging on the man and bringing him down like a wounded water buffalo.
And all the while, Mason stood against the wall of his building, frozen like a statue and breathing in shallow little gulps of air. He couldn’t delude himself into believing that this was looting in the face of a city-wide blackout. This wasn’t even a full-blown riot. This was the same phenomenon as on the airplane and in the stairwell, but on an epic scale. This, Mason concluded without the merest shadow of a doubt, was sheer insanity.
Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to be back upstairs in his apartment. Home was safe. Home was his kingdom. Once inside, he could lock the door, throw the bolt, latch the chain, hunker down, and ride out this madness.
He turned back to the door, and was just about to grab for the handle when a face appeared inches away. He gave a startled gasp and shied back before he realized that the face was on the other side of the glass. And what a face it was. He recognized the old man as a fellow resident, but now the man’s gray hair was disheveled, foam drooled from the corner of his mouth like a rabid dog, and his teeth were bared in an angry snarl. But it was the eyes that Mason found so disturbing. They were blank, dull, sightless, yet they stared through the glass as if burrowing directly into Mason’s very soul.
He side-stepped slowly and quietly away from the glass and saw the eyes remain fixed straight ahead. Breathing a hushed sigh of relief, Mason eased as soundlessly as he could toward the doorman’s little smoke-break hidey-hole, but then another face appeared out of the darkness beyond the glass, and he froze again. He recognized this face, too. He never knew the woman’s name, but he’d smiled at her several times in passing. 10th floor, he remembered. She was divorced, with a couple of young kids. Now, she was in the same state as the other crazies; hair in disarray, wild, staring, sightless eyes, and mouth curled up into a snarl. But this pretty young thing dressed only in a baggy pajama top had been a busy little mongrel. Fresh blood caked her mouth and chin and stained the front of her garment, dripping in little rivulets down her bare legs.
How are the kids? Mason thought witlessly. Or should I say, how were they?
The woman pressed her face against the glass and gnashed her teeth. The door was inches away and would open easily, but she made no move toward it. She’d lived in the building for over a year, so surely, even if she was blind, she should be able to find the door. Clearly then, whatever had invaded her body hadn’t just taken her sight and given her a taste for human flesh; it had robbed her of her intelligence, too. These people tearing through the streets weren’t people anymore. They were animals, with no higher brain function than that which told them to hunt and to kill and to feed.
Mason wondered idly how the nameless woman had managed to escape her apartment. If she couldn’t manage to push open a lobby door, how did she figure out the intricacies of a doorknob? Someone else must have let her out, he reasoned. Did one of her children run? Did they make it as far as the lobby? At last, he realized that pondering such things was a futile exercise and only succeeding in creating a horrible image in his mind, so he abandoned the train of thought and took a few quick steps into the doorman’s secret alcove. Once tucked away amid the scattered cigarette butts, he felt somehow safer, so he slowed his breathing and concentrated on making as little noise as possible.
There may have been a dozen creatures on the street. Those that weren’t actively gorging themselves were alternatively stumbling blindly, listening with head cocked, or charging headlong toward some sound or another in a blind frenzy. And in among all of those homicidal lunatics were the consequences of their savagery. The dead were everywhere. One man was hanging halfway through the driver’s window of a car that had piled into the back end of a parked SUV. Another poor bastard had actually been pinned between the vehicles, and what was left of his upper body now lay splayed across the hood of the car. Other corpses lay huddled up against the curb or spread-eagle in the middle of the road or in crumpled heaps amid drying pools of mire. Some were being feasted upon even now, while others had already been stripped to the bone and abandoned. It was a scene of which Dante himself could never have dreamed. And here was Mason, rudely thrust into the nightmare with no idea how to make some kind of sense of it all. He huddled back in his alcove and put his analytical mind to work in trying to make sense of the utterly incomprehensible.
The wild things were blind; that much was obvious. Blind and insane. But what of the others? From what he’d seen, it looked like the whole city had gone blind. Was he the only one who could see? No. Obviously not. Blind men can’t drive, so at least he wasn’t entirely alone. But why was everyone else blind? Was it more of that blue lightning? Possible, but unlikely. That new flu he’d heard about before shutting out the world? More likely. But could a simple flu turn otherwise normal people into mindless savages? It seemed impossible, but maybe it was more than a simple flu. Maybe it was a terrorist plot, after all. Some new strain of rabies cooked up in a lab in North Korea or Iran and set loose on an unsuspecting American public. Hell, maybe it was even a home-grown nut-job with a PhD and an access card to Plum Island messing around in his basement. Ultimately, though, the cause didn’t matter. In a city gone mad, the only thing that mattered was survival.
The building across the street was an apartment building just like Mason’s. Twenty stories of glass and stucco. Maybe a thousand residents. He gazed up at row upon row of windows and saw movement behind many. But how many of those shadows were wild creatures, and how many were like him? There was no way to tell, but if the sickness was a recent thing, there would be a lot, and many of them would be as clueless as he’d been about what was going on down below. Like him, they would awaken in complete ignorance and go about their day as usual; getting ready for work, packing a lunch, getting breakfast for the kids…..
Christ! The kids! Any time now, parents would be bundling their kids together, preparing to take them to Grandma’s for the day or to soccer practice or day camp or wherever else parents unloaded the kids when there was no school to run herd while the parents worked. Mom and Dad would make sure that their little snowflakes had their bagged lunch or soccer gear or box of crayons and coloring book, and then they’d march them out the front door, straight into the mouth of the beast. Literally.
Was there any way Mason could warn them? Short of shouting at the top of his lungs or running from door to door, he couldn’t imagine how. He entertained grandiose visions of spray painting a warning on the roadway or throwing rocks through windows, but every ridiculous idea was more preposterous than the last. Finally, he admitted that there was nothing he could conceivably do, and he assuaged his regret by assuming that not everyone was bound have quite his level of complete ignorance on the subject. If he hadn’t been so adamant about closing off the world, a quick peek at the nightly news might have let him avoid the situation altogether.
The irony was not lost on him, but once he silently heaped an impressive array of curses upon his own misanthropy, he only added to the absurdity by thinking again of those faceless shadows in the windows and concluding once and for all, every man for himself.…..
Just as he came to that determination, one of the neighbors in his own building awoke. One of the newer residents. The discordant wail of a crying baby bellowed through an open window a few floors up, directly above his head. Mason didn’t even give it a second thought until he saw the two crazies across the street stop feeding on the grisly remains of the fat man and raise their heads. They hovered over the corpse for some seconds, then they crawled to their feet and gaped sightlessly across the street, growling like animals. Suddenly, both creatures abandoned the corpse and launched themselves toward this new sound at a frantic run. One of them tripped over a newspaper box and fell hard, but he was immediately back to his feet, completely disregarding the fresh wound on his forehead and charging headlong after the other.
Mason saw both men racing toward him and froze in fear. Should he run? If he did, they’d hear him. But if he stayed, they’d run right into him. No choice. He had to make a break for it. But even as he made the decision, it was already too late. That single moment’s hesitation was enough. Both creatures were suddenly there, barely five feet away from him, snarling and clawing up at the unseen baby like wild dogs baying at a treed raccoon.
Just like that, he was trapped. The alcove that was supposed to be his sanctuary had become his undoing. The horrible creatures dripping gore and snorting blood were barely more than an arm’s reach away, gaping up at that open window. He slowly drew in a deep breath and held it, moving not a muscle. There was nothing else he could do. If he tried to run now, they would be on him. Fool that he was to not flee when he had the chance! He should have seen what was going to happen. As soon as the baby started crying, he should have done the math. Stupid! Even as he stared out at those two murderous creatures covered in another man’s blood, he made himself a promise. If he somehow got out of this damned booby trap, he’d never let himself slip up like this again. If he was to survive this….…whatever it was…….he had to think fast. Any action was better than no action at all, so from now on, he had to make decisions on the fly and act without hesitation or second-guessing.
But first, he had to survive this predicament. He couldn’t hold his breath much longer, and as soon as he released it, they’d be on him before he could draw another. He had to get out of there. He had to move. Now!
With agonizing slowness, he lifted one foot off of the ground and inched it forward. He lowered it as far in front of him as he could and settled it to the ground as softly as he could. One of the creatures flicked his head toward the whisper of sound and Mason froze. Several harrowing seconds passed before the creature finally snorted its frustration and turned back to the crying baby, and Mason moved again. He shifted his weight onto the forward foot, raised the other, brought it forward, settled it to the ground, and shifted his weight again.
Now, he was clear of the alcove, but he was nearly face to face with the man with the lacerated forehead. He was close enough to look directly into the crazy blank eyes and smell the metallic tang of blood dripping down the man’s face. The man’s eyes flicked down and settled on Mason’s chest, and for one horrible moment, he thought the creature might have actually heard his pounding heart. His lungs were burning, but he forced himself to remain absolutely still as the creature gaped his way, snarling uncertainly. Several eternal seconds passed, then the creature finally returned its attention back to the wailing baby, and Mason moved again. He took a single step to the side, away from the creatures, and then the worst thing that could possibly happen, happened.
The crying stopped.
Mason froze in place, close enough to reach out and touch the two madmen. Both creatures looked stupidly up at the silence as if waiting for it to resume, then they ceased their growling, lowered their gazes to the ground, and held perfectly still.
By now, Mason knew what they were doing. They were listening. Listening for any sound that might be a dinner bell. With Mason close enough to smell the rancid stink of their breath, they were listening. And as soon as he moved, they would pounce.
This time, he didn’t hesitate. He lunged forward and shoved the wounded man back as hard as he could toward the other, and without waiting to see if he’d been successful or not, he ran. He heard a crash from behind, and a pair of insane bestial howls, and he ran for his very life. Then there came a flurry of scuffles and a growling and a pounding of footfalls behind him, and he knew that it had all been for nothing. They were both after him, and quickly gaining. There was no way to disguise the sound of his shoes striking pavement, so he didn’t even try. He ran as fast as he could, panting heavily and tearing headlong down the sidewalk. He’d bought himself a second or two, but they were close now, and still gaining. Twenty feet, by the sounds of it, maybe less. Mason was in decent shape, but his strength was already ebbing. Those creatures were fueled by pure adrenaline and rage and would never tire. They’d keep after him until they had him. How could he hope to…….
Idiot! They’re blind!
Without missing a beat, Mason cut across the street. The madmen followed and continued to gain, but Mason headed straight for a line of cars parked on the far side of the street. He leapt onto the hood of a big sedan, pounded across it in two steps, and jumped to the sidewalk on the far side without breaking stride, then he heard muted thuds behind him and chanced a quick look behind. Both men had run headlong into the far side of the sedan, and now they bumped along the side of the vehicle like moths against a lampshade as they followed the sound of his retreated footfalls,.
He had eluded two, but the street was full of wild things. Another appeared directly in front of Mason, attracted to the tumult, and Mason stopped in his tracks, looking about himself in desperation. There was nowhere to hide, no way past the madman, and now there were two other crazies tearing toward him from the rear. He was quickly running out of real estate. They would be all be on him in seconds. He had to move!
The car parked beside him had a tiny red light flashing on the dashboard. Not pausing for a second, Mason grabbed a metal garbage can from the curb and hurled it at the side window of the car. The glass shattered in a spray of pellets, and the street was suddenly filled with the screeching wail of the car’s alarm. Those creatures running toward him immediately changed course toward this new sound, but then a more insidious aspect of the ploy made itself apparent. The alarm was so loud that it was attracting others into the street. They appeared out of doorways and from around corners and from inside alleyways and from everywhere at once, and every last one of them was running headlong directly toward the sound.
While those close to him were distracted and before the others arrived, Mason threw himself into the street and sprinted back across the road, planting himself between a lamppost and a mailbox. A middle-aged woman tore past and clipped the mailbox with her foot, but Mason held the box to keep it from falling and watched the woman stumble on with the jagged tip of bone protruding from her ankle.
This spot was safe for the moment, but he couldn’t stay. The alarm was echoing through the streets, and more were coming from all sides. A dozen. Twenty. More still. In moments, there would be nowhere to go. Mason stepped out into the middle of the road and watched a loose mob rushing directly at him. He took a deep breath and held it, then he engaged in a desperate, deadly game that would either prove his downfall or his salvation. As each beast ran headlong toward him, he dodged to one side or another as quickly and quietly as he could manage, hoping that the harsh wail of the siren would cover any scuff his shoes might make on the pavement. As one creature raced past him, he would take a few steps away from the gathering swarm, gauge the speed and direction of the next in line, and deftly deke to the side to let it pass.
At last he reached the intersection, and the rushing crowd thinned, but Mason didn’t stop to congratulate himself. He’d managed to extricate himself from the mess, but it had been a mess entirely of his own making. From here on, he’d have to be smarter. It would take all of his wits to survive this hellscape, but as he stepped gingerly over the destroyed corpse of a young child, he knew that he’d either survive or die trying.
He turned the corner, and with one last quick look over his shoulder, walked as swiftly as he dared away from the noise.