“Sir, can I ask you a question?”
“Another one?” Ray kept moving. Smartly dressed lady with a clipboard equals survey scam. Every mall has them.
“It’s just a short survey, Sir.”
Told ya! Not bad to look at though. He kept walking. The woman paced with him.
“If you had a moment, Sir?”
“Sorry.” I’m almost that desperate, but not quite. A touch prettier, a year or two on the right side of forty five and you’d have had me at ‘can I’.
The woman fell back, a shark circling for easier prey. Ray shook off the lingering guilt he always felt at disappointing anyone and stepped onto the escalator.
Going up in the world. The weak one-liners bubbled up even without a date to scare off. The first floor welcomed him with chrome and glass. An Athena poster shop, Pier One for the household trimmings out of TV make-over shows. Wicker baskets, deco mirrors, dark stained vaguely ethnic furniture, not from anywhere specific, just ‘ethnic’. A candy store, muzak and bin upon bin of garish sugar laced with E-numbers.
Ray glanced left then right, too quickly to really register any more names. He wished he knew what to look for. Presents for little girls. Maybe somewhere the neon read ‘Guilt presents for divorcee dads who don’t really know their kids any more’.
“Excuse me.” A voice from behind.
“Sorry. Sorry!” Ray hurried clear of the escalator and kept moving, head down, as if he had a goal in mind.
Three hundred shops and nothing I want.
A vast Toys R Us held down the far end of the mall occupying all three levels. Ray made for it. On the floor below, fountains ran and dripped, water cascaded in lazy waves over stainless steel water features. A metal rail above plate glass kept errant second floor children from becoming dead first floor children. Ray stayed away from the drop. Heights didn’t so much make him nervous as mesmerize him. Rabbits and headlights. Moths and flames.
Don’t look down. Best advice ever.
“Are you OK?”
“What?” Ray focused on the man in front of him. “What? Sorry, I nearly walked into you there.”
“Don’t matter.” The man had a collection tin in his hand, down by his side. He shook his head. “Are you all right though? You look like death.”
“Sure. Just busy. Sorry again.” Ray made to step around.
“Take care.” A blue tabard read ‘Homes for Hanton.’
Hanton? Hanton … Ray remembered the story. Underground coal fires. Made the place a ghost town.
‘Oh, I heard it through the grape vine…’ The song rang from his jeans pocket. Tinny but loud. Ray took a few paces, struggling to fish his cell phone out and failing. He admitted defeat, stopped and hooked it out. ‘…not much longer..’ The song stopped before he found the right button.
“Damn.” For an instant a hot wet pain soaked him. Needles ran through him, like tooth-ache down every vein. And it was gone, before he could even gasp.
“Take care.” The charity man again. Something strange about his voice. The ‘care’ trailing off like a tape-deck running out of juice.
Ray turned. The man watched him, mouth half open, hand half raised. Behind him two women stopped in their tracks. Another woman further back stopped too, the baby howling in her stroller went silent, like it had an off-switch. Ray hadn’t even noticed the screaming until it stopped.
“What?” Ray raised both hands in a question, waiting for the man to say his piece.
It seemed like everyone else wanted to hear what he had to say too. The silence rippled out, voices shutting down with that same low drawl. Everywhere the people just stopped walking. On the first floor Ray could see the effect spreading through the crowd.
“What the hell?” Ray stepped toward the charity man, stopped, uncertain, glanced around. In the distance the people at the main doors halted in mid-stride. Seconds later an SUV plowed gently into the bike stands outside.
The charity man still hadn’t moved. The label on his tabard read ‘Burt’, in black letters just above ‘Homes for Hanton’.
“You’re freaking me out, Burt.” His voice sounded too loud. He could hear the in-store muzak now, leaking from the shops, fountains tinkling, the sound of air-conditioners, the thump of his heart, a weird grinding noise from the escalators where bodies were starting to pile up on each other, fallen in stiff unnatural poses.
“Fuck this.” Ray shook his head. “Fuck this big time.” A step back with every word.
He bumped something and spun around with a shriek. The woman fell as he reached for her, toppling like a tree. Her head hit the faux marble with a dull smacking sound, arms at her side even as she rocked on the ground and her summer dress settled around her.
“Shit!” His shout echoed in the glass dome above. Ray hauled the woman onto her back, releasing her quickly, revulsed by the tension in her limbs. Blood oozed from her forehead, shockingly crimson, sticking wisps of blonde hair in place. She stared past him at the filtered sunlight. Her perfume reminded him of lilacs.
“Oh fuck.” I’m not on Candid Camera.
Ray stood again, the breath harsh in his lungs. “This is so not happening.”
He looked down at the woman. Pretty.
He backed away. One step, two steps, turned and ran. He swerved past Burt with his collecting tin and ‘take care’ on frozen lips. Past the two women, dived left past the mom and stroller, sliced between the old couple. Coach Robbins would have been proud, three years of football training and benchwarming paid off in full.
Ray didn’t stop until he reached the escalator. A red smear ran down the grooved metal center of each step. At the bottom of that stiff awkward pile of bodies somebody was being eaten, nibble by nibble. Grind. Grind.
A glimmer somewhere near the bottom of the heap, the metal clasp of a clipboard. A man near the top had his arm outstretched, the hand that had gripped the escalator rail, open and reaching for Ray.
For a moment, a minute? an hour? Ray watched, as frozen as everyone else. A distant ‘whump’, like the noise of a gas pool lighting up, shook him free. He reached for the hand.
Fingertips almost met. In his mind’s eye Ray could see the hand closing around his. The man pulling on him as he tried to tug him free. The man hauling him into the pile, drawing him down into what ever sickness held them.
The steps rose, one by one by one, wet and red, pieces of skin caught in their teeth.
A crash from the sweet shop behind him. Glass shattering. Sherbert lemons skittering out onto the walkway in their hundreds.
Ray ran. He ran without caution, smashing into shoppers, ricocheting and running on, leaving them rocking in his wake, some falling.
He pounded down the stairs, threw himself at the fire doors and staggered into the parking lot gasping for breath in the hot June sun.
Frozen people dotted the lot. Ray gave them a wide berth as he made for his Corolla. Not until he held his key in shaking hands did the thought strike him. The emergency stop button. The red punch button had been right in front of him. He could have stopped the escalator in a heartbeat.
Ray looked back at the mall.
“I can’t do it.”
The car seat seared his arms as he slid in. He closed the door, locked it, started the engine, the AC, the radio.
‘…there’s a little black spot on the sun today…’ Music channel. He punched the button looking for news. For an instant he saw the red stop button.
‘KKLDB …. you’re with radio KKLDB … you’re with radio KKLDB …’ The local channel looped its jingle. He switched again. Some woman on NPR talking about a book she read…
‘Oh I heard it through the grape vine…’ Ray pulled his phone out. “Hello? Hello?”
“….can you hear me? … he ok? …help you?” An unfamiliar voice breaking through a storm of static.
“Hello? Hello? Who is this?”
“…calm … don’t worry …help you.”
“Hello?” Ray took the phone from his ear and stared at it. “Christ I’m an idiot.” He killed the call and dialled 911.
“911 emergency, which service do you require?” A woman, brisk, efficient.
“Ambulance. Police.” A thin column of smoke coiled above the service station across the lot. “Fire. All of them.”
“Sir, what is the nature of the emergency?”
“I …” Ray couldn’t find words. The AC made him shiver. Sweat ran cold down his neck. “They… just stopped moving.”
“Sir? Who stopped moving?”
“Sir, it’s a federal offense to make nuisance calls to the emergency line.”
“Everyone stopped you stupid bitch. Every fucking one of them.”
“Sir, it’s an offense-”
“The escalator is EATING her!”
The line went dead.
Ray dialed again.
“911 emergency, which service do you require?” A man this time.
“Ambulance. For the Alheeda mall.”
“Sir, what is the…” The last word trailed into a deep slurred syllable.
Ray drove from the lot. He found Main Street clear save for a Blue Nissan wrapped around one of the Mall’s towering light poles, and a Volvo deep in the flower beds, still churning dirt from its front wheels. Black smoke billowed around the Nissan’s crumpled hood, but the real carnage lay ahead at the crossing with Route 7, dozens of cars, maybe a hundred, trucks, among them, a coach on its side and in the midst of the pile up a gleaming tanker, too far away to tell if it carried gas or milk.
He approached at a crawl, wondering if he could thread a way around the wreckage. As he drew level with the Nissan a lick of red flame escaped the hood, running up over the windscreen. The woman behind the wheel stared at the sky, tilted back and to the side in her seatbelt by the force of the impact. Ray wondered why the hell her airbag hadn’t gone off. Fire filled the car as if a giant match had been struck under her. The flames rushed up from around her legs. No explosion, no sound, just an orange hell. He could see her through the inferno, withering, hair evaporating, leaving her oddly unisex. She had reminded Ray of his mother.
“They’re dead. All dead.” He staggered away from his car, blinded by tears. The air stank of gasoline and roasting meat. The image of the woman swam before him, withering then melting in her seat. They must be dead.
Fifty yards on he passed a man frozen at the curbside, waiting forever to cross a street where nothing moved.
“Dead.” Ray circled around the man and moved by. “Have to be.” It’s rigor mortis.
He took ten more steps, each slower than the one before. They can’t still be alive …
With a groan Ray turned. The man waited at the curb, just out from the office, lunch maybe? Grey suit, grey hair, tie a subtle blue, shirt fresh and ironed. Somebody’s boss. Probably had a secretary waiting in one of the blocks behind them, a file motionless above her nails.
Ray went back. He stood two foot away from the man and watched him, studied him.
“Ah shit.” He reached for the man’s wrist. The flesh felt hard, fever-hot, muscles locked against each other. Ray’s fingers trembled too much to find a pulse if there were one.
“I don’t want to do this.” He shook his head. “I don’t want to.”
Ray leaned in close, his ear to the man’s face, by his nose and mouth. Visions of every zombie film ever made filled him. He saw the scene from a hundred angles. The man’s jaws gaping, the bite, head rearing back with half an ear in his teeth and blood spilling down his chin.
He listened. Nothing at first, then the crackle of fire further down the street, the pounding of his heart . . . and between the beats, every now and then, the faint thin rattle of breath being drawn.
Ray walked home. Apart from the car wrecks the city looked fairly normal. Stirling on a hot Virginia day. Nobody walked anywhere. Hell, there were no sidewalks. No sidewalks, no frozen victims, no silent judgements, no unspoken questions.
Why didn’t it happen to me?
He walked along the grass verges, sweat trickling from armpit to hip. He watched the sky to avoid looking into crashed cars. Two planes crossed overhead, dark needles with silver contrail thread. Once he tripped on something thrown clear from a four-by-four, something small and lost in a white-frilled dress.
Ray’s apartment block looked unchanged, just a lone woman outside, two scorched fingers at her lips. He keyed the main door and crossed the lobby. It would have been asking too much for it to be empty. Four people waited for the elevator on the left, old folks from the third floor he thought. A girl from the sixth, just below him, stood frozen before the street door, hand reaching out for the handle. She looked about thirteen, but she lived alone so who knew?
His feet carried him to the elevator on the right and the doors opened the moment he touched the button. He caught himself before he stepped on.
“Today would be a bad day to get stuck in there.” He made for the stairs. “A very bad day.”
‘Oh I heard it on-‘
Ray snatched his phone out. “Hello? Hello?”
“…worry …ambulance coming… ” More words straining through the static, too garbled to distinguish.
“Christ! What is wrong with me?” He ended the call and speed-dailed Jane. “Pick up. Pick up!”
Voice mail. “Jane!” He paused on the stairs. What to say? “Jane. Call me as soon as you get this. Something’s wrong here. Get the girls. Get them out of school. Just stay safe. I’ll come to you.”
You’ll come to them? You lost five pounds in sweat getting back from the Mall. You’re going to walk to a whole different state now?
He reached the seventh floor, winded, with black specks starting to swim in his vision. An acrid smell hung on the air, faint but definite. Smoke.
Ray crashed into his apartment, bolting the door behind him. He took a beer from the fridge, thought better of it and took all three. He sat with the bottles cold on his legs, huddled in his lounger, the TV remote in hand.
Film. Film. Commericals. Film. Documentary. Channel 7 out of Baltimore – all the news and more. The news reader sat at her desk, crimson smile in place. And nothing. Like when a thunderstorm overloads the satellite dish and the picture freezes. Only this was cable. He kept on clicking. Film. Commericals. Commericals. Commericals. Commericals. CNN.
“…return again to the terrorist attacks in Virginia…”
Ray cracked open a beer and let Ms Erica Hill tell him the story. Planes down, communications disrupted, picture confused. Indications of a chemical attack. Al Qaeda. Nerve gas. Presidential address. Ray let it all wash over him.
“It ain’t fucking nerve gas, Erica my darling.” He set the empty bottle by the first two. “I don’t know what the hell it is, but it ain’t nerve gas, it isn’t communication fucking difficulties, and I know I voted for him God love him, but the president is lying his ass off.”
Marvin Gaye interrupted. “Jane?” Ray slammed the phone to his ear. “Jane?”
“Can you hear me Mr Sherman?”
“I can hear you. Who the hell is this?”
“…can’t hear … …dilated… Mr Sherman, try not to worry. We’re going to run some tests.”
“Tests? What fucking tests? Who the hell is this?”
The line went dead.
Ray got to his feet, a touch unsteady. Three beers in twenty minutes would put a wobble in anyone’s legs. He put each bottle back to his lips, searching for the last drops, wishing he’d got more in on the weekend. The thought of stocking up for free at the Seven-Eleven whilst frozen cashiers stared past him creeped him out. He remembered the Jack Daniels left over from Christmas. Must have been half a bottle. Behind the rice? Behind the wheat flakes? Bingo.
Ray and Jack sat down to watch the news together. It made a little more sense the second time Erica told it. Nerve gas. Yeah.
More pictures of crashed planes. Osama Bin Laden’s face. Maps of Afghanistan. It started to look blurry. Ray and Jack began talking back to the TV.
“But it spread from me didn’t it? Maybe not. Someone in the candy store. Some gas-masked terrorist unscrewing a canister. Gas spreading out. Nerve gas. And somehow I’m immune … because God just loves the hell out of me …”
Ray woke in the dark. It took a while to figure out he was on his back. It felt like a railroad spike had been driven through his left eye and out the back of his head.
“Christ.” The word came off a sandpaper tongue.
“Where?” Ray rolled to his knees. Carpet under his fingers. He reached out. Something soft. The edge of a bed.
He crawled until his head hit the door. “Shit that hurt.”
Using the wall he levered himself upright and found the light switch.
“Fuck this, fuck this, fuck this.”
He walked to the bed, unsteady, blind. Crouched and reached under. “Come to daddy.” He had a flashlight under there somewhere. He jammed his face to the bed and stretched, fingertips questing.
Lighter! He remembered his lighter. He’d given up smoking, finally convinced when Doc Raymond came straight out with “It’s killing you.” But he didn’t give up the lighter. Sometimes he thought the whole smoking thing had started just as an excuse to carry a silver lighter with a sheriff’s star on the front.
Click and fuck you very much electricity, I got fire!
Shadows danced across the room. The figure sitting on the bed, not two feet from him, did not move. Ray dropped the lighter as if his hand were on fire. He didn’t remember starting to scream but he was still screaming after running into the door, bouncing off, hauling it open and throwing himself into the TV room.
The darkness froze him. He could charge blindly out into a pitch black apartment block . . . or stay here with . . . that.
He grabbed the bedroom door handle, slammed it shut, and stood gripping it until he could no longer feel his hands and his arms filled with needling pain.
Ray stood held by the darkness and by fear until the ink of a night that felt as though it would never end shaded into a grey suggestion of dawn. He stood parched with thirst, aching for the toilet, and utterly silent, convinced that a single word would set something to pulling the handle on the other side of the door.
Sunrise. Empty beer bottles strewn before a dead TV. No sign of the whiskey bottle.
At last in the light of day Ray found his voice.
“All right you whoreson.” A whisper.
He crept from the door and took the bread knife from its place by the kitchen sink. Nine inches of sharp steel made him feel a little better. Not much, but a little.
Ray returned with slow steps, making far more noise than he wanted to.
You can do this. He kicked the door like they do on Cops. The catch bust open, the door hit the wall and nearly bounced shut again, but not quite.
“For Christ’s sake!” A desperate laugh escaped him. “Maria.”
The cleaning lady sat on the bed, her feet on the floor, a yellow cloth in one hand.
“For Christ’s sake…” He went in, still clutching the knife. “It wasn’t even your day was it?”
He crouched down to look at her. A few specks of dried foam hung around lips that were drawing back from her teeth. Her fixed eyes glittered above slightly sunken cheeks.
Dehydrated. Ray wondered how long a person could live without water.
“I’ll get you a drink. Maybe I can dribble some in?”
He started to get up, then paused. He followed her gaze. It took him to the spot where he had spent half the night lying insensible. Suddenly those drawn back lips seemed to be smiling and the glitter in the eyes looked like hunger.
“I’ll . . .” He stood and backed away. “I’ll get you a drink.”
He left his apartment at a flat run, knowing he would never go back.
Outside the apartment the girl still clasped her invisible cigarette. She threw a long shadow in the early light. In her left hand an orange flier caught the breeze. Ray tore it free, except for the handful she wouldn’t release. An announcement for a poetry reading. She’d taken it down or intended to put it up. Either way, it wasn’t going to happen. Good thing too judging by some of the examples.
Ray walked without particular direction. He held the bread knife tight and kept moving, haunted by the feeling that if he stopped then something would creep up on him.
Eight AM and already hot and humid. With the power out and the AC down, those apartments would be starting to bake. Ray thought of Maria with her yellow cloth and the foam around her mouth, cooking slowly in that stifling room. He wondered about Jane. Would she be in her office, and the girls in school, or would she have got them home? Would she be sitting with Sarah and Julie at her side, her arms around them? If he got there, if he could make it, would they all be sitting there baking in the heat, watching the door, foam on their lips. Could he stand it if their eyes glittered with that strange hunger?
He walked slowly. Smoke rose in thin columns dividing the sky. Somewhere buildings were burning. The few people he found frozen in the streets looked like death. Ray probably looked as bad, nothing but beer and whiskey and walking in the heat. He’d never been so dry.
Ray found himself back outside the Mall.
Return to the scene of the crime. Retrace your steps to find the answer.
The grey-haired man in his smart suit still waited to cross the road. Ray approached him. Sunken cheeks and eyes, like all the statues in the streets. Ray wondered what lay behind that fixed stare. He remembered how hot the man’s flesh had felt, as if he were burning inside, hidden fires, like that ghost town and its coal smoldering underground year after year. Were they all like that? How long can a man burn inside? And when he is consumed, what then? When he’s left empty, when he’s a ghost town, hollowed out . . . what comes to fill him?
Something white protruded from the front pocket on the man’s jacket. Ray could see the edge of it. He snatched it clear. A name tag. He’d been attending some sort of conference. Ray glanced at it, quickly, not wanting to take his eyes off the man.
“Sam Hanton – Stirling Software Solutions”
Ray frowned. He glanced at the tag again. Shook his head.
“Well Sam, I’m sorry as hell. I’d help you if I- Holy shit!”
Ray leapt back. Sam’s stare followed him.
“What the?” Ray moved into the road, knife raised. Sam’s eyes tracked him, flitting from his face to the knife and back.
“Can you hear me?” Ray heard the tremble in his voice. He sounded terrified.
The eyes watched him.
“Can you hear me? Look to the left if you can hear me.”
Nothing, just the stare.
“Sam, if you can hear me, look up!”
The sunken eyes watched him with a frightening and desperate intensity.
“Look, I can’t help you. I don’t know what to do. I don’t-”
Sam’s eyes began to look around wildly, violent jerks from left to right.
“Hey. It’ll be all right, the government-”
The man’s eyes rolled up, until only the whites showed, for all the world as if he were trying to look behind him.
“Fuck.” Ray thought of the girls. “Fuck.” If they could look around, if they were conscious. He had to be there. He patted his pockets. “Oh crap.” His car was only a hundred yards away but his keys were on the TV.
By the time he reached the apartment block Ray’s shadow huddled around his ankles trying to hide from the sun. His legs ached and every inch of him ran with sweat. He’d walked more in two days than in the whole year before.
Ray had his hand on the door when something at his feet caught his eye. Something orange. He knelt and picked up the torn scrap of paper.
“… and a thousand statues stared, each into their own hell …”
He stood, easing himself upright, knuckles white on the knife. The hairs on his neck tingled and ice ran under the sweat. He turned. Nothing. Like her cigarette, the girl with the flier was gone.
Ray looked through the door glass into the lobby. The girl who looked thirteen, the four old folk, all there, sunked and grey. For a moment it looked as though nothing had changed. But they hadn’t all been staring at the door, surely?
“No way.” Ray backed and then turned and then ran. “No fucking way.”
He couldn’t go up there. Not into his apartment. Not to find Maria there, looking at the door with those fever-bright eyes. Or worse, not to find her at all.
Suddenly it hit him. Even with the blazing sun overhead, pounding on his hangover. It’s going to get dark. It’s going to get dark and there’s no power, no lights. No power, no lights, and the girl is gone. Worse than anything in the world, worse than finding answers, worse than saving his children, Ray wanted a place to hide. A place with a door and a lock.
He went back again, followed the same streets again. At each turning he convinced himself someone had gone, one of the statues had vanished, maybe two, maybe three. Wasn’t there an old man on that corner? Wasn’t there a child by that door?
Ray watched the windows. Nothing moved. If they were better why wouldn’t they be in the streets like him?
The smoke columns above the city had grown fat, gorging themselves downtown. Ray could smell the fires now, barbeque and burning plastic carried on the faintest of breezes.
He made it to the Mall, past Sam, still waiting, still with his eyes rolled impossibly far into his head, past the black ruin of the Nissan.
Ray knew a place. He knew a place to hide and it drew him, reeling him in. Through the fire exit, through the far end of the first floor, through the staff door, past the frozen Mall cop. Ray stopped. He watched the cop for a few moments, then lifted the flashlight from his belt.
“Let it be open.”
Ray pushed the next door. It swung in to reveal a flight of concrete stairs leading down. Ray flicked the flashlight on and followed them.
Another corridor, with doors to the left and right. Dating Margie from the Dairy Queen in the food court hadn’t been such a waste of effort after all. Ray caught the handle of the second door on the right.
“Come on you bastard, they never lock you.”
The flashlight’s beam took in row after row of metal shelving, stacked high with tins and cardboard boxes. The food court stores, shelves allocated between Mexican, Chinese, Pizza parlour, and Cookie Shop alike.
Ray moved into the store room, placing each step with care. He swung the flashlight nice and slow, checking each corner. Near the entrance a workman’s bench, a cordless drill and a scattering of screws on it, an assortment of planks stood propped against the wall close by. In the furthest corner several dozen huge tins of corn oil, a sheet drapped over the rear of the collection. It looked like it could make a good den, with the sheet as a handy roof. Already Ray felt like he was ten, hiding out from his brothers.
He shut the door behind him and put his back to it.
“I’m going to hide. I’m going to wait. I’m going to let somebody else sort this crap out. I’m going to let the monsters eat themselves. I’ve got food. I’ve got drink. I’ve got a plan.”
Ray banged his head back against the door. The pain felt distracted him from his self-loathing and felt better than what he might feel instead. Even so, a small voice spoke at him, whispering from back there where skull met wood. Coward, it said. Your children are lost, it said. Waiting for you, needing you, out there, lost.
Ray paused, head poised to slam back again. Something had moved out there. He was sure of it. Something. Something scraping on a concrete floor.
He set the flashlight on the workbench, took a plank in one hand, screws and the drill in the other.
Again, the scraping noise out in the corridor. His hands trembled so much as he changed the drill head for a screw-driver head that he dropped both and had to chase them into the shadows.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Ray held the plank in place and used the drill to drive the first screw through it into the door frame.
Something soft and heavy hit the door.
“No … you … fucking … don’t.”
He drilled another screw into place, securing the plank. Two more and he moved on to a second plank, then a third.
The thing in the corridor tried twice more to force the door. The drill ran out of battery power just as Ray secured the fourth plank in place.
“I’ve got food. I’ve got drink. I’m gonna wait this out.”
Whatever had been at the door left, or perhaps it had just stopped and waited there, staring at the door, endlessly patient.
The flashlight died about half an hour later.
Ray sat in the corner closest to the door, pressed in, a water bottle in his hands. He rocked it back and forth, letting the gentle slosh of liquid match his heartbeat. His eyes could make nothing of the darkness. He saw colors, red and green.
‘Oh I heard it through the grape vine.’
Ray spasmed in surprise. His legs shot out and he heard the knife skitter across the floor.
‘Not much longer would you be mine. Oh I heard it through the grapevine.’
He fought to drag the cell phone from his jeans. It seemed glued in.
‘Oh I’m just about to lose my mind.’
He pressed it to his ear. “Hello? Hello?”
” . . . daddy . . .”
“Oh my God. Sarah?” A cold hand twisted in his gut.
” . . . love you daddy . . .”
Tears. “Sarah.” Daddy loves you. Loves you enough to hide in a hole and leave you out there.
” . . . can’t hear you . . . keep talking to him . . . may help . . .”
“Can you hear me, Sarah? Daddy’s here. Can you hear me?” Ray bent double, foetal in the dark.
The phone started to beep. An insistant beep, beep, beep, like a hospital monitor.
“Sarah? I think this phone’s running out.”
“Look to the left if you can hear me.” Jane’s voice, tired and sad.
“Jane? You’re with the girls? Jane? What the hell is happening?”
The phone screen faded to a dull memory.
“It’s just random. He’s not looking at us,” Jane said.
The reds and greens swam. Darkness pressed from all sides. “What the hell is happening?”
Beep. Beep. Beep.
“Mrs Sherman?” A man’s voice. Ray had heard it last night on his phone. The man talking about running tests. “I’m afraid it’s what we suspected, Mrs Sherman. A stroke. An unusual but not unique form. There’s very little damage. Everything should work. But it doesn’t. The common name is locked-in syndrome.”
“He’s locked in?”
It seemed to be getting lighter. Had the power come on again?
“Jane!” Ray shouted into the phone. “I’m not-” The screen died. The voices, the beeping, all gone, leaving only the LCD after-images.
The after-images grew rather than fading. They grew and moved. Ray shook his head, trying to force meaning into them.
A bed? Blurry shapes?
And in an instant he could see bed sheets, a drip stand, somebody sitting close at hand. He tried to look at the person but his gaze wouldn’t shift.
A face moved into his line of vision. Jane, bags under her eyes, no make-up. She looked old.
She looked away. Her lips moved but no sound reached him. She met his gaze and spoke slowly.
“Jane? I can’t hear you.”
She looked away and shrugged.
Ray tried to lift his arms. He felt them move, but nothing moved in the hospital bed he could see. He reached out. He felt the concrete walls of the store room, he felt the workman’s bench, the useless phone. Blind fingers brushed the last of the screws from the benchtop and he heard them hit the ground.
“What the hell . . .” He heard his voice echo in the store room.
He stood slowly and stepped forward. His hands felt along the walls, moving over the planks screwed tight in place. He could see only the hospital room, a frozen window on a clean and well ordered bed with the hint of a foot at the corner of his eye, a child’s foot, a girl’s shoe.
A metallic sound. Somewhere in the store room, somewhere back amongst those stacked cans of cooking oil, something moved. Some dry creature rose from its den, woke from its break time nap, and stood. Ray heard the slow scrape of feet on concrete.
He pulled on the plank, tearing a nail, not moving it in the slighest.
The footsteps moved closer, slow and irregular, punctuated by the sound of falling tins. Ray turned his head but his eyes saw only the foot of a hospital bed, a glimpse of green scrubs passing by. His eyes became free, searching the room wildly. Jane, Sarah, a bright window, none of it any use to him.
He pounded the door.
‘Oh I’m just about to lose my mind.’
Hammered it with both fists. He tried to roll his eyes up far enough to see behind him, to see into the room he was really in.
“… and a thousand statues stared, each into their own hell …”
He felt bones break as the hollow man drew closer.
“He’s locked in?”