Bigguy was the first to go, but Gonna wasn’t too far behind. Her hand swelled up to two or three times its normal size only days later, and the smell coming from it was horrible. We’d known something about infection, but we were too young when our grownups stopped working and didn’t know enough about it to stop it from killing Gonna. We couldn’t do anything for her after a couple of days after we noticed the black stuff coming from the marks in her hand. Black lines extended from her hand all the way to her elbow at one point, and when she could no longer walk we had to argue over whether we could carry her or if we would leave her behind. Bigguy wanted to carry her, but he wasn’t big enough to carry Gonna for that long. He still argued, he still told us that he could make it, that she wasn’t that heavy.
When she threw up on him though, Bigguy got mad and dropped her. That’s when we heard something crack, but it wasn’t a branch or anything since we had made our way out of the trees at that time, what few had still been standing around our cave. I forgot to tell you, the lands around our cave looked like they had suffered a huge fire, with only blacks and grays to be seen. There were a few green bushes here and there, but their leaves didn’t taste good to eat and they didn’t offer a lot of places to hide from the big, shaggy dogs with sharp teeth. I think the old man called them wolves, and damn are they mean. They’re hungry is what Gonna told us before she was unable to talk anymore. I think she’s right, but I don’t want to know just how hungry they are.
We left Gonna behind finally, and when we did she was sleeping, as far as I can tell. Bigguy wasn’t happy about leaving her, but we didn’t say anything to him, otherwise he would get mad at us. But when we were far enough away we heard a loud, very scary scream, and Bigguy almost went back, but the scream stopped.
“That means she’s dead,” Sure-Sure had said, “We need to walk, or we’ll be dead next.”
She was right about that, since Bigguy was the next to go.
The world was bright, that’s what I thought at first. I couldn’t see, I could barely remember to breathe due to the shock. It had usually been dark or kind of dim when we’d opened the door before, but always hot, almost enough to raise parts of our skin in small circles that were painful to touch. They burst open after a while and oozed some sickening stuff that smelled awful and tasted worse, but they healed thankfully. This time though, there was still some warmth, but it wasn’t enough to make us run and hide again. We’d only had to push the heavy door open, the others had left it unlocked, since you couldn’t lock it from the outside. Somehow though, I don’t think they would have wanted to anyway.
Nuh-uh and I didn’t catch up to the others until it was nearly nightfall, and it was good that we did since the others hadn’t thought to bring enough supplies to last them. Nuh-uh and I had brought along some extra food and stuff that was used to help people when they’re injured. Gonna, one of the other women in our group, had run afoul of a creature with big teeth sharp enough to pierce her hand we’d discovered, and had been bleeding through a strip of cloth that had been torn from her own shirt. Since the three of them had only packed light, they didn’t have any proper stuff to help when they were hurt. After removing the cloth, Nuh-uh and I saw that her hand was twitching, and that there were four gaping red wounds that had been punched into the back and pads of her hand. Even touching them hurt her, but thankfully Gonna sat still while Nuh-uh pushed the sharp little stick, a needle, that’s what it’s called, and thread through the wounds to close them.
When she was done we asked them why they’d taken off, and Sure-Sure, the other girl, said that she’d heard something, or someone, calling from outside. I said that was stupid, no one could hear anything through that thick door. But she’d kept on saying it, finally admitting that she’d heard it in a dream. I don’t really believe in dreams, they’re never real when you wake up, and after a while we forget them anyway. I’ve had dreams that I can just barely remember, but I don’t think they’re ever going to come true, especially since the woman I see in them is….
Well, I don’t want to talk about that. I’d rather just say I forgot and move on. The others can keep their dreams, I don’t need mine. I just need to stay alive, and apart from Nuh-uh, who’s out there somewhere now, I’m still here.
Oh, you probably want to know why we’re the last two now. Okay, here’s the story….
It’s funny almost in a way, not so much funny ha-ha any longer, but funny still, how a young man can be ruled by something other than his brain. I’ve heard most of the jokes that go on about how a guy loses his mind at a certain age for a while, only to get it back years later when he’s either screwed up too much in life to make much of a difference or has just decided to settle for what he’s done or gotten himself into. I thankfully don’t have that problem to worry about any longer, but to be honest there’s times now that I almost wish I did. If nothing else, I’d get to tell the girl that got me into this exactly what I think about her and her insistence that I act a little less like myself and a little more like a character off of a sitcom or a movie.
I suppose I can’t really blame her for this, but it’s a lot easier than taking the blame for something that wasn’t my fault either. Really, how does a person find blame for something that seems like it should be happening in a B horror flick and not real life? It’s a lot more comforting to try and find a scapegoat for things like this, and since she told me to try the damned mask on, I’ll focus on her.
Her name was, or still is as far as I know, Naomi Rogers, a young woman I met nearly a year ago, and was dating until, well, I’m not sure how long it’s been. I know my “eyes” have opened onto the light at least twice since it happened, but time doesn’t seem to fit right in my head anymore. Actually that’s not accurate. It’s more like time just passes, but I no longer have any idea how much or even when it does. My sense of time is really and truly gone, leaving me only enough of comprehension to know when I’m being taken out into the light again, to be put up on display.
Naomi and I lived on Hayden Island, Jantzen Beach to most people, we’d each been raised here since we were ten, though we didn’t know of one another really until only a few months before we got together. Hayden Island isn’t much, mostly shopping centers and restaurants spread as its core and residences further towards its edges. On the far western side lies a train station that I’ve never seen but always heard growing up, while to the eastern tip are homes, a yacht club for people rich enough to own such floating luxuries, and Tomahawk Island, which is a good deal smaller than Hayden Island and is mostly private homes. Don’t ask me how it got its name, I don’t know now and I’ve never known, nor do I care since it’s not germane to this story.
Sorry about that, I get a little testy sometimes, and it makes my surroundings a little more pungent. Or maybe it’s because of the odor, I don’t know. There are so many things nowadays that I can’t really think clearly about that it’s a wonder I can even relate this to anyone anymore. But where was I? Oh yeah.
The two of us were raised here, going to school over in Vancouver until we graduated, whereupon Naomi then went off to PSU, moving into the city. I attended PSU on an athletic scholarship, Track and Field, but washed out after awhile. Naomi and I managed to meet before I was done at the school though, and hit it off really well in the bedroom if not always in other venues. That physical relationship managed to keep us together, though sometimes I had to wonder how long it would last. I lived in the poorer side of town, the trailer park where I’d been raised with my folks until they hit retirement age and moved on down to California, where I suspect they are now. I don’t talk about them much, so I’ll just keep moving on.
Anyway, the store yeah? Naomi came to stay at my place a lot, said it was a relief from the city and she would walk by the water since the Columbia River is just a stone’s throw away from the trailer my parent’s left in my care. It’s still in their name, but I’m the one paying all the bills, or at least I was. I guess technically I still am, but I’m not. I know that sounds crazy, but keep with me and maybe it’ll make sense.
There used to be almost nothing in the mall where so many shops sit now. The building I’m , and consequently you’re, in right now used to be nothing but a massive parking lot, with a Lamont’s, Montgomery Ward, and a few other stores located further away within the center of the lot, there was a K-mart too from what I remember. I might have been little, but I remember that much. Well anyway, the store I’m in now, the big, expansive store that was cut in half by the flimsy barriers that the current owners put up to discourage people from traveling too far inward, was at one time a Linens N’ Things, kind of like a Bed Bath and Beyond, with all sorts of stuff for the house, like pots and pans, bed linens, and a variety of other junk.
Linens N’ Things went out of business nearly two years ago, they just up and went under, like a lot of places around the island did. I heard they filed for chapter eleven bankruptcy and as a result every one of their stores went out of business, no matter if they turned good numbers or not. It’s the way of the world I guess, you either toe the line or get replaced. Yikes, that just sent a shiver down my spine, good thing though I don’t have one, otherwise that’d be kind of annoying.
Getting back to what I was saying though, the store went under, nothing replaced it for awhile, until just last year, when it became a prime location for an independent couple and their friends to turn a dollar for profit. As far as I know they only rented the space out, but it made them good enough money I’d guess that it didn’t really matter if the rent was extraordinarily high. Judging by how much they charged for their products I’m not surprised at all that they’re back, which is accurate enough judging by the view I’ve been given.
It turned into a Halloween store, a place filled with costumes, masks, implements to make a costume more scary or at least more amusing, and items for the house and front yards of those who like to get into the Halloween spirit. Everything from fake bloody limbs to life-sized witches and ghouls that work on batteries and feature motion sensors so that they’ll cackle, groan, and even move a little bit to frighten guests and tricker treaters alike. There used to be a time when I loved Halloween, but now the novelty is kind of wasted on me. I’ll get to why in just a second.
Naomi fell in love with this store, she’s a Halloween nut too. She likes to decorate her home, likes to scare the bejeezus out of everyone she can, and she really, really likes to dress up. The first Halloween we spent together she dressed up as a saucy French maid, and I’ll tell you, the costume barely made it past the party we went to, since I, ah, well, I won’t go into that just now. Let’s just say I really got into the role of the pirate I was dressed as and found a hidden booty. No? Not even a laugh, damn, I thought that was kind of funny. Oh well.
So when this store came out with its wares, sometime in early September, Naomi was all over it. We just had to go to the Halloween store, just had to try on costume after costume, just had to look at all the gory and interesting things to buy. And of course, I just had to try this one damned mask on. You’ve seen the movie Scream right? You remember the ghost face that got so popular because of that? Who could have ever known that a piece of molded plastic that seems so simple in design could have gotten so huge? Anyway, I didn’t want the damned thing, I wanted to dress up as a Jedi knight that year, but Naomi insisted that I try on the mask, and even came into the dressing room to, ah, help me try it on. Okay, okay, we fooled around in the dressing room, with full knowledge that more than one person saw us go into the same booth. Who cares? It was innocent enough, it’s not like we were going to leave the door open and give people a show. Besides, I never even got to really enjoy myself after the mask went on.
You know that smell you get when you try on a department store mask? It’s kind of musty sometimes, maybe even kind of nasty, like sweat and other people’s odors since so many people try on one mask after another around this season. There’s also that latex smell that’s inherent with so many of the damned, man I keep using that word, disguises. This one wasn’t any different, but when I turned around to look in the mirror, something kind of happened.
I can’t really explain it that well, but it was almost like I was looking back at myself. That sounds kinda dumb I know, a mirror does give you that ability. But what I mean is that I was looking at myself as though I was looking at someone else, it was my body and all, but I couldn’t shake this feeling that someone else was in there, someone who was looking back at me and liking what they saw. It happened so fast I’m not even sure how real it was, but I know how real it got. As soon as I, or me, I mean the person pretending to be me, took the mask off, it was like being directed by something else. I could see the floor, I could see the saggy blue jeans I liked to wear so much, and I could even see Naomi’s hand grabbing my crotch, getting me all excited . But I couldn’t feel it.
I saw the me but not me as my face grinned down at me, shaking my, his, head as he/I left the dressing stall with Naomi. He, I, put the mask back on the rack, hanging it kind of askew as I, he, walked off. Naomi grabbed my, his ass on the way out of the store, the two of us, them, laughing about something as I tried to tell her that it wasn’t me she was walking with, that he was someone else. But he sounded like me, he looked like me, I even wondered if he was going to act like me, and when I thought about other things I got pissed off kind of, wondering if he would, y’know, be able to satisfy Naomi like me. It’s a lewd thought I know, but dammit I’m still a young guy, or was before now, and my mind goes other places when it concerns my woman. Or rather, his woman. God that’s confusing.
You ever have the kind of disassociation in a dream? You can see what’s going on, and you know it’s you, but it carries no meaning to your brain, like it’s you, but not you. Ah I know this all sounds crazy, but I bet you’re feeling it right now, aren’t you? After all, you put the mask on, just like so many other people have, just like the rest of us in here. And you know what? I forgot to formally introduce you to the club. Get used to this, cause next year it’ll be your turn to tell us all a story.
I write in this flimsy thing that I found, the old man called it a log, or a di, a di-aree, or something, I don’t know, but he taught me to write just enough that I can put my thoughts down as they come, sometimes. There are times when I have to carve the writing thing he gave me, a pensil he told me, something with charcoal inside of it. That sounds silly to me. Why wouldn’t a person just hold the charcoal, so they wouldn’t have worry about getting rid of the stuff around it?
Nuh-uh thought it was something to eat at first, but she spit it out after she couldn’t bite through it. She tried the squishy thing on the end, but said it tasted terrible, like chewing on a piece of tough skin. She’s chewed on her nails long enough, she knows what tough skin is all about.
When we opened the door to our cave we didn’t want to leave the smooth walls and the comfort we had, but the old man’s body was starting to stink, and we had to put him out. There was no place to put him in the cave, even though we had a lot of rooms and a lot of coverings to wrap him in. Nuh-uh and Jabber, the two girls in our group, said that he was going to stink everything up. So we went to put him out, like we’d put so many others out before. We didn’t keep the people that didn’t work any more, the dead, as the old man called them, because they stank, and worse than that, Nuh-uh said they whispered at night, trying to tell her they weren’t dead, that they were just waiting. She never said that they said what they were waiting for, but just to keep her from freaking out we put them outside.
The first time we did this the world almost killed us when we pushed out the last person that had fed us all the time. She wasn’t that old, but she’d stopped working just like the old man, the thump sound in her chest hadn’t come anymore. But when we’d put her out the outside world had threatened to burn us to death, and Bigguy, who I think is my age, burned his hands on the door while shutting it again. He was sick for a while, but we fed him and let him lay down for a long while, so everything was okay after a while. We forgot how long it took for him to get better, but when we put the old man out he wrapped his hands and arms to avoid the heat. The rest of us wrapped ourselves up in clothes and coverings too. But something weird happened when we opened the door that time.
It was warm outside, but the hot stuff didn’t attack us. If I’d known the others were going to go wandering I might have said something, but when we added the old man to the pile of people the others didn’t take off. They waited until Nuh-uh and I were asleep, and then they left.
We don’t know when it is, we don’t know where we are since we’re still learning about this place we walked out into. Hell, we didn’t even know how to read and write until the old stranger came and informed us of what had happened, and why.
The Ancients burned the earth, or at least that’s what we believe. He told us that there was something called a war out in the lands beyond our big cave home, a conflict, a disagreement, I don’t know. He used a lot of big words that we hadn’t learned yet, but I remember that eventually we got the point. The Ancients had ruined the world for the rest of us, they were the ones that had tucked us away, to hope for something better that might come along. They were hoping for us to be the future I guess. It would have been nice for them to leave us something to learn from, a book like the stranger spoke about, or a story of some sort. All we’d known at that point was what the broken word-thing had been telling us since we were younger, babies actually.
When we were younger there were still people to take care of us, to give us food and clean us up when we needed it. There were a lot of us to start with, but after learning my numbers, thanks to the stranger, there are only five of us now, five uneducated dummies left in a world that looks like a burned piece of toast and has stuff we’ve never seen lying around all over the place. We’ve even seen what the old man called a ‘skeleton’, a pile of different-sized things we all have inside of us apparently. Nuh-uh, she’s my favorite of those that are left, didn’t want to believe it, but I saw that she did anyway.
It’s hard being out in the world we were told so little about, especially since the stranger who tried to teach us stopped breathing a while ago. I listened for the thumping sound in his chest for a while, but it didn’t come anymore, and I learned what that means. He didn’t work anymore, kind of like the stupid word-thing that used to teach us stuff when we were still little. Sometimes I wish I could say that we just forgot about the world around us, that we knew more about it than we really do, because saying we forgot would mean that we’d known something about it, and maybe it would just come back to us.
But we don’t know anything, and that’s even worse.
Getting away from the rest of them wasn’t going to be as simple as he wanted it to be, but as he quickly entered the building in front of him, Cliff at least knew that they wouldn’t have the balls to storm a building that was filled with various gangs that had no love for the BLM and even less for Antifa. Such place still existed, but they were cities unto themselves at times and some of them had learned how to become self-sustaining villages of a sort that made their own products and recycled as much material as they could to keep themselves running. Thankfully the local governments, despite supporting BLM and Antifa, still found it necessary to appease everyone on some level, otherwise these places might have never appeared in the first place.
Cliff didn’t happen to know much about this particular building, but the markings he’d seen on the service door he’d gone through made it clear that they weren’t BLM sympathizers. And if they didn’t care for BLM then it was likely that they didn’t like Antifa either. Making his way down a service corridor he wasn’t even stopped until he rounded a corner and found himself facing two individuals that looked to be lounging in the hallway. One of them was white and the other was black, and they were both armed, but didn’t appear hostile.
“Can we help you?” the white man asked, rubbing at a rough, scrub-like beard that was gray in areas.
“This ain’t a place you can just walk into youngster,” said the black man, “At least not if you’re dressed like that.”
Cliff looked down at his black sweatshirt and faded blue jeans, frowning as he looked back up. Neither of the men were wearing face masks he realized, which prompted him to pull his down so they could see his face in full.
“I’m sorry,” he said calmly, “This was all I had for the day. I’m not BLM or Antifa, promise.”
“Yeah well, too bad for you we’ve heard that before,” the black man stated, his hand moving towards the pistol situated in a holster at his hip, “It’s probably best that you run along now son.”
Cliff licked his lips nervously, looking back the way he’d come, “I can’t sir,” he replied, “I’ve got BLM and Antifa on my ass. I saw the red white and blue star on the door and I figured this place would be safe for a while. If that’s okay.”
“What were they chasing you for?”
It was a huge trump card to play this soon, but having seen the mark on the door and the fact that both men had bristled noticeably at the mention of BLM and Antifa, Cliff figured it might be his only chance to stick around.
“Because of this,” he said, pulling the item that the thugs had started chasing him for. The reaction that both men had wasn’t a new one, since most people hadn’t seen a genuine American flag for quite a while.
Cliff had heard of the game ‘capture the flag’ from his mother when he was younger, but the game he was currently engaged in had far worse consequences than losing if he stopped or was caught at any time. His sneakers slipped just a bit as he ran across a spill of garbage that had been left to rot and congeal on the scored and beaten blacktop, but he wisely accepted the skid before his feet found purchase on rough asphalt once again. Behind him came the sounds of people shouting, calling him such things as ‘coon’, ‘race traitor’, ‘nationalist’, and many other names that he didn’t bother responding to since his main goal was to outrun whoever was behind him and keep the precious cargo in his pack from falling into the wrong hands. For all he knew it was the last one. It was definitely the last that he’d seen in some time.
The American flag, the old stars and stripes, had been banned in many cities and torn down by angry mobs over the years as a ‘racist symbol of oppression’. What had replaced it were the BLM flags, the Antifa flags, and any other banner that people wanted to fly that didn’t inspire any thoughts of the freedoms that so many had given up when bending the knee to the two organizations and their many splinter groups. Their gangs ran most of the cities in the USA at this point, and those within the government that could do something about it wouldn’t since they knew how hard the groups would fight them. Even federal troops hadn’t been enough to get the gangs out, and even attempting to do so simply made life harder on those citizens that didn’t want to pick sides.
A break in the alley was coming up as he could see, offering three different ways he could go. He could continue straight ahead towards what looked like another cross street, or he could turn right or left. Glancing quickly in both directions as he slowed Cliff opted to go to the right after noting that it too made its way out to another cross street. A quick glance behind him showed that there was only one person still on his trail, a lanky, mangy-looking woman in a wife beater with a sports bra underneath and a pair of sweatpants accentuated by a pair of well-worn sneakers.
“Yeah Imma get you little punkass bitch!” she yelled through the mask covering the lower half of her face, “You’ better keep runnin’!”
It was strange that no one else had followed her, but Cliff had an idea that she wasn’t really alone and that any direction he went he might be headed into a trap. That was okay, he could improvise, and as he tucked to the right and continued to run he could hear her catching up as he took refuge behind a dumpster only seconds before she came racing around the corner. He knew the ruse wouldn’t work that long, but taking something from his pack he slipped it over the knuckles of his right hand, holding it to his lips as he said a small prayer to himself.
“Hiding isn’t going to do anythin’ for you little bitch,” the woman said as she stalked forward, “I saw you come this-“
She was just coming around the dumpster when Cliff decided it was time to strike. He didn’t like hitting women, and he didn’t like fighting in such a gutless style, but right now he was just trying to get away. If she was allowed to see where he went next he was confident that anyone that was seeking to flank him would be given a serious advantage that he couldn’t afford. So right now, this was the only way.
Still, he couldn’t help but wince at the sound the brass knuckles in his right hand made when they sent her crashing to the ground.
The pictures say it all really, but as divisive as some folks want to say Republics and the right are, the leftists and Democrats are somehow going even lower and getting worse and worse, and the worst part is that they appear to be proud of it.
A couple of other things he’d learned was that big guys didn’t always take two shots, but the second was usually best reserved for any overeager wingmen that were ready and willing to step up to back them up. Fortunately no one had drawn a gun on him yet, and Cliff had already seen an opening he could use if he needed it. One punch later and he needed it as the second individual he’d expected went falling away, his nose a bloody mess as Cliff turned to run. The alleyway was only a short distance from where he was standing, but as he turned to make his way to the right, towards what would be an uncertain flight towards another part of town, he felt a hand grip at the pack on his back.
“Motherfucker!” he heard behind him, followed by a heart-rending rip as the top of his pack was torn open, revealing what he was carrying. He hadn’t though to hide it any better than this, and leaving it at home hadn’t been a smart option since despite his reliance on firearms in the house, BLM and Antifa had both been through his and his mother’s belongings a couple of times in the last few months. They hadn’t found all his hiding spots yet, but since they’d found one, the word was no doubt out among some of them that his home had a hidden compartment that they might find something in. For that reason his heart dropped as he heard the breathless words that came next.
“Flag,” he heard behind, “He’s got a, he’s got a flag! This motherf-!” That was as far as the individual got before Cliff was spinning around, driving his left elbow into the face of a woman that fell away instantly. She wasn’t alone unfortunately as more onlookers were coming over to see what was going on, most of them being like-minded no doubt and several more sporting BLM or Antifa gear as he muttered under his breath.
Only moments later he was running down the alley he’d noted, and the chase was on.