Saturday, February 12, 2011

Part Two:Night People

Less than a month in the  Oklahoma City ruins and I have already obligated myself to another human being…three of them,  in fact.
I have promised this Peter Janson I will help him search the city for his two foster children who snuck off Tinker military base to set out for a religious commune in the Pacific Northwest.
I think it impossible that two children could survive overnight out here with the Night People.
What's more, I don't even know whether or not my promised reward of admittance to the base will even pan out, but I have counted the slim possibility that it will as sufficiently worth the risk of aiding Janson.
We have been walking  north for nearly three hours since I met the old man.
Turns out the kids had an aunt who had lived in some loft apartments near here before The End. She died in the wars, but the kids had been very attached to her and Janson thinks they may return to her home for sentimental reasons. Several times in the past, Robert has mentioned that she had a lot of old family photo albums and that when he got older he wanted to see if they were still there.
Janson knows the kid better than I do and it’s the only lead so I follow.
 I notice right away that the old man tires easily and it slows us down far more than I would like. My usual modus operandi is to find a fortified position an hour or so before dusk and start digging in for the night, so we've got to cover as much ground as possible…
My rifle is at the ready now as I eye the doorways and windows of the ghostly tenements and malls. A familiar claustrophobic feeling settles on me as we walk, stretching my nerves taut.
I permit the old man the quiet small talk he tries to make with me as we walk. In spite of my worry of being overheard, the sound of another human voice after so long on my own has a strangely soothing effect, and although I reply sparingly, I listen to him ramble.
He is a medical doctor…worked at the base before the End, and now he helps out in the militia-ville's infirmary, which is why he is somewhat connected to Commander Villeneuve. Janson's wife died in the wars…he doesn't say how. He never had any kids.
"What about you," he asks. "Where's home, originally?"
"Washington State," I reply. "Yakima area."
"Beautiful place," he says. "Do you still have any family alive?"
The question evokes a sudden image…my mother, lying on a filthy mattress in our fortified basement, dying of a fever,  unattended by any physician.

 Suddenly, for a brief second, I am there again, holding her hand as she passes, hearing her tell me that she loves even me as she dies, my own words of love lost in the gulf that separates the dead from the living. 

And outside the barred window, the sound of claws scrabbling and inhuman growls…my terror mixed with despair because I know whose hands those are, seeking entrance frantically, seeking to rend the life from my body.

Those hands had once been human.

They were the very hands that had built the very shelter in which we cowered.

They were the hands that had held my own when I was a little boy and I was afraid of the dark...
Why am I even still sane?
 I push the memory from my thoughts.
"No," I reply. "They're all dead."
"I'm sorry," Janson says. Then, after a pause: "Where you ever married?"
Another memory is prompted by his question, but this one is not buried and locked inside like the other one.

This one I try to take out and look at every day, usually when I am sitting by a fire in a remote mountain campsite or watching the sun come up.
A pretty face, smiling at me. Soft brown hair and intelligent green eyes, washed in sunlight.
I can see us again, together.
We're at the university library. It's before the End, before the virus and the Night People were even a rumor.
The sun is shining through a nearby window and we are half heartedly searching through books of old poetry,  supposedly studying for Jan's literature class. Really we are just enjoying being around each other, laughing at little nothing  things and pretending we don't notice the disapproving glares of the old librarian woman.
We'd talked politics that day…Jan liked to do that.

 I just liked to listen to her talk.

 I'd teased her that day about being a liberal because she'd voted for Obama, and she'd chastised me for not voting at all, and for being incurably cynical about all politics.
"How's everything going to change if you don't use the system?" she'd asked. "In spite of everything, I believe it's going to get better someday."
Usually, Jan was always right and I was always wrong.
Not this time, Janice.
Emotions rush within me…I remember everything about her face and personality in the most intricate detail.
The book of Emily Dickinson poems she gave me, inscribed with the last note she wrote to me, is still in my pack, worn with use but still intact.


I can remember the day that she died as though it was yesterday.
"No," I answer Janson at last. "No, I was never married.  We'd better stop talking now. They're out there."
We reach the apartments at last…and discover that they no longer exist.
A fire has gutted them, maybe in the wars.
"I'm at a loss, then" Janson says. "Perhaps they took refuge in a nearby building."
"I don't think so," I reply, pointing.  His eyes follow mine.
Tall grass, trampled down at the edges of a vacant lot at the edge of the burned out tenements.
The city cleanup crews have been a little behind schedule since the End.  The resultant four years of unchecked urban vegetation springing up everywhere often provides the tracker a record of when and where people have passed by. Thanks to a  battered Boy Scout Field Handbook I fished from a corner book dumpster two years ago, and lots of patience, I have learned to notice and interpret signs in the growth  and the dirt  from travelers human and animal…and the in-between.
We carefully inspect the growth.

The impressions are recent, since the rainfall two days ago.

The direction in which the grass is bent indicates an eastward direction, and the marks reveal that more than one person but not more than three made them.

And they were not heavy.
Now it is Janson's turn to follow me.
The trail leads us to a train track running east and west.  Around us are the backs of a bunch of old warehouses built in the sixties and seventies. Eastward, a few feet away, my eye catches a gleam.  I go to it, stooping to retrieve it...a piece of trash.
A foil wrapper from a military ration, the stain of relatively fresh chocolate on the inside.
Janson becomes excited.
"MRE mint cookie," he says.

 MRE--Meal Ready to Eat.

Army jargon.

"Jessica took a stack of them from our flat the day they ran away!  You've found the trail, alright. But it looks like they're headed to Midwest City, if they're following the tracks--why would they go there?"
I don't know, and at the moment I don't really care.

For the last thirty minutes, the skies have been clouding, hinting at the chance of a sudden spring storm.

They're common in the the Midwest.

 The Night People sometimes come out during storms when the sun is hidden.
"Let's get moving," I say, uneasy.

We begin to walk down the tracks, watching the light of day quickly fade to the gray hue of approaching rain.
Suddenly the city's silence is shattered.
A blood curdling scream, echoing out of one of the abandoned warehouses.
The scream has the sound in it of an animal, perhaps that of a great wild cat.

And yet, within its depths is something remotely human, something lonely, at once full of both despair and rage
A second later, an answering cry rises from somewhere, also muffled by the confines of a building.

A chorus of howls and screams go up, coming from what seems like every building around us and lasting for several seconds that feel like an eternity.
Then all is silent again, except for the pounding of my blood in my ears.
"My God!" Janson says, his face etched with fear. "They can't be more than a hundred yards away!"
"They know we're here," I say, fighting down my own panic. "And it's getting darker...they'll be coming out soon. Go!"
We begin to run, or jog, actually, since Janson can't keep pace with me.

We have not gone far as I realize that the sudden onset of a storm has indeed begun.

The landscape begins to darken..the sun is creeping behind the clouds, and a peal of thunder booms.
I am suddenly and acutely aware that we have no safe shelter.

 I am not about to look for one in the old warehouses.

I begin to scour the area with my eyes, searching desperately for an out.

Only one thing catches my eye…an old metal water tower, rising high above a line of trees, a quarter mile away perhaps.
"The tower," I say.
Janson follows and we are soon running through empty lots and side streets. 

Lightning flashes to the east, and  thunder rumbles again. The sun is hiding now, and we are in bi chromatic shadows of silver and gray.

The water tower will not be the ideal place to make a stand, but it is the only place that offers even a ray of hope.

It's a vantage point they won't easily take, and I'll be able to pick my shots, saving on ammunition.

I just want to get up there before they emerge...but, I realize quickly...that's not going to happen.
As we are about cross a side street directly adjacent to the tower, a manhole cover in the street suddenly pops off, and clawed hands appear, followed by a head that resembles nothing so much as that of the infamous Orlock from F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu film. The virus that took away the creature's mind also has a deforming effect upon the features over time, creating a truly hideous aspect.
A hiss erupts form the thing as it bounds out of the hole, then a howl of rage as it sees us, its arms waving wildly.
A second later it sees nothing more.
The AR-15 spits fire into the gloom.

Three shots, and all connect.

I know the Night People enough by now to know that one shot alone will not bring them down.

Nosferatu howls, then pitches forward in his own black blood, dead.

I run to the manhole and peer down. Screams, hisses, growling echoing  from some tunnel, getting closer.
"What are you doing!?" Janson asks.
"Keep going," I say, swinging my rucksack down from my back and fishing from it a sealed leather bag.
Janson continues to run as I unzip the bag and remove the contents…a bundled petrol bomb made from gas, oil and an old wine bottle.

The smell of the gas soaked white rag reaches my nostrils as the first drops of rain begin to fall.  I fish my Zippo from my pants pocket and light it..the screams are getting closer now.
Below me I see shapes in the black pit...shadows moving up the iron rungs in the manhole, coming for me.
I drop  the petrol bomb.
I see it fall past the first figure on the rungs….his eyes are like two glittering rubies beaming hate at me from the darkness, briefly illumined in the light of the burning rag.
Suddenly, there is the sound of breaking glass and a soft whooosh noise.
The manhole shaft has become a blazing pit--agonized animal howls erupt from the depths of the city. Figures wreathed in yellow flames writhe in torment as they fall back into the tunnels, their death wails turning my blood to ice.
Now I begin to run after Janson, knowing that any who were not killed in the blast will turn back…the Night People hate and fear fire as much as the fiery orb of the sun itself.

I glance over my shoulder and see one lone figure emerge from the pit, engulfed in flames and running wildly in no particular direction at all.

Even in the midst of panic, the thought is clear: I have done him a favor.
In minutes, I am the base of the tower. Janson is stuck…the ladder begins some eight feet above us, meant only to be accessed by city service crews.

We have no foot ladder to span the difference.

More howling.
From the direction we just came, an army of shadows has materialized, running towards us.
Wildly, I look about for some means of egress to the ladder rungs above us…and see it in the form of the dead and fallen trunk of a smaller tree.
"Help me with this!" I shout at Janson. He obeys and within a few minutes the beam is in place.
The Night People are getting closer--glancing back, I can see their eyes now, red and malevolent in the gathering shade.

"Up! Now!" I yell.
I hold the beam in place as Janson begins to scramble up.
 His weight almost dislodges it--the iron legs of the water tower are now slick with rain, and he is an awkward climber... but by some miracle, my strength keeps it in place.

I spare another look back towards the tracks.

Death, flying towards me.
The ghouls will be upon me in minutes.

"C'mon, c'mon," I yell. "Step on it, Janson!"

Janson has stepped off of the timber and is now moving up the rungs of the service ladder.

Please don't let him slip, I pray.

I wedge the beam as tightly against the tower leg as I can and step back.
I hear the sound of animal screams behind me, yards away perhaps.
I put my rifle back on my back, move backward a space, and with a few steps running start  I leap for all I am worth.

I land on the beam, feel it giving, and leap again.

The timber falls away from beneath my feet and I am in midair, my hands grasping for the bottom rung.
They close on slips off again again from the rain on the steel, and I twist wildly for a moment, straining to hang on with my remaining grip.
I feel a hand brush my left combat boot, and I pluck it up--I coil my legs upwards and blindly smash them down again.
I feel a head go down underneath, followed by a howl.
Using every bit of strength I have within me, I regain the run with both hands and do the biggest pull up I have ever done in my life, heaving myself upward, reaching for another rung as for life itself, bending my knees upward to get them out of reach.

Slowly, I begin to ascend.
A glance below me shows a swarm of Night People spilling around the tower leg, leaping, howling, screaming.

Within minutes, the base of the tower is engulfed in a tide of them, and they are after our blood.

I know that the Night People are not intelligent enough to repeat my action with the timber.
The contagion that changed them into the monsters they have become took away all semblance of human reason and replaced it with only animal like cunning.

They do not think.

But they do possess  an inhuman strength  that is in accordance with their bestial nature.

Something in the virus gives them that.
It will be only minutes before one of them makes a lucky bound and grasps the bottom run of the tower ladder.
We've got to reach the top.
"Move it, old man!" I bellow, coming up underneath him and fighting down the urge to climb around him, even knock him aside.

My survival instinct is that strong.
Janson is panting, groaning, in a state of abject terror.

"I-I'm trying," he wheezes.
Rain and wind pelt us as we ascend the rungs, our ears blasted with the cacophony of growling and screaming.

Within fifteen minutes we have reached the catwalk that circles the tower.

Janson is almost unable to pull himself up, but I use my remaining strength to give him a push, and when is up and over, I fairly fly up after him, spinning around to protect our rear.

We have gained the high ground.

I scramble backwards on my rear end and thrust the barrel of the rifle downwards, ready to blast the first ghoul that mounts the tower.

Rain is now pouring down on us, and lightening flashes overhead, bringing home the added threat of electrocution.

I look below and see the army of Night People surging in upon itself, swirling around the base our fortress.

There must be a couple hundred of them, I think to myself, my breath coming out in ragged gasps from fear and the shock of the rain.

As I gaze upon the mass of twisted humanity, a shadow springs up from the ranks and catches onto the service ladder, pulling itself up.

Cat like, it begins to climb, moving faster and with far more agility than Janson and I possess between the two of us combined.

It has not even climbed ten feet before another figure vaults upward from the masses, catching hold and following its kin.

I reach into my holster and yank the .45 out, handing it to the old man.

"You know how to use it?" I yell above the rain.

He nods, pulling the slide back.

"Don't shoot until I tell you to, got it?"

He nods again, the water streaming down his pinched up face.

I glance down and see two more ruby eyes burning holes in mine.

A bruised and swollen face.

Bluish skin, matted hair, and glistening fangs.

Yellow nails filled with plague.

It hisses triumphantly at me...within minutes it will be where we are.

I knew I was going to regret this.


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