Serial Novel Part 6
by CHRIS CASTLE
ike drove home and slept for two hours solidly. He packed what he thought was necessary into the boot and took off, not even looking back. Refreshed, he stopped by Glenda’s for a few minutes and then tried to locate the houses in total darkness, lacking even candlelight. Each time he knocked on the door and got nothing. Mike stepped back, feeling a wave of total and pure dread before getting back into the car. Something even worse is starting to happen now; he thought and re-holstered his gun. By the time he drove by Sara’s house and saw the two of them playing by the window, a burst of relief ran through him. He flashed his lights once and got a wave in return. Seconds later, she was standing on her porch and Mike was making his way over.
“Would you like to come in for coffee?” She asked, her daughter squirming in her arms. Mike waved her off.
“I’m doing rounds. I just wanted you to know I’m going to be staying at the station house now, so if anything…happens, go straight there, okay? It’s closer and more direct.” He put his hand out and smiled as the sleepy girl took it. A flash of the attic came into his mind and he tried to push it away.
“Has something happened?” she asked and Mike was impressed to see the hardness in her voice and eyes.
“We don’t know about the blackout, whether it’s intended or not, but I think the meeting tomorrow might throw up more problems than solutions, so I just wanted to let you know our plans.”
“Thank you,” Sarah said and on cue, her daughter yawned. He took a step back and waved, climbing back into his car. He pulled back and raised his hand once more, following her until she got safely inside. Hell of a time to fall in love, he thought almost casually and laughed to himself as he made his way back to the station house.
Mike parked the car as instructed and opened the boot to carry out the box of food, looking round twice before he did, panic at being obstructed from his weapon shimmering through him like a breeze. Nick appeared at the steps to keep an eye out for him and the surprised expression on his face made Mike smile.
“Don’t get any ideas just because I’m moving in, roomie,” he said and Nick exploded into a laugh so loud and joyous it took Mike by surprise, almost making him drop the tatty cardboard box.
“Don’t flatter yourself, gorgeous,” he said, walking down to the car for the other box, giving Mike a swift smack on the ass as he did.
BEAUTY AND BRAINS
Mike took the storage room, which also doubled as an evidence locker and cell. He made up his camp bed as the two of them went through their proposals for the meeting and bounced ideas about rationing. It sounded ridiculous at first, but the more they discussed it, the more practical and sensible it became. Soon, Mike wondered why people, himself included, hadn’t already thought more about water wastage and energy conservation before now. We thought we had all the time in the world, he realised and felt something in his stomach turn to ice. The two of them, the town, the world, everything was all out of time.
“So basically, we’re fucked,” he said after a moment’s deliberation. The harshness of the word and saying what he thought in simple, basic terms, felt great. He felt lifted and saw Nick react more to those four words than any other since they’d started having the conversation.
“Pretty much every way, at every angle, whichever way you look at it,” he responded, as if he’d been waiting for that statement more than any other. “I think it’ll come down to basic survival by the end of the month, if not before, unless something radical happens between then. We’re going to have to make some hard choices and quickly, Mike.”
“Whether to stay or run,” he said and plopped himself down on the camp bed. It was surprisingly rigid and barely flexed under the weight of him.
“Sure, but that might be dictated by what happens around us. We can say stick or twist, but then it might be taken out of our hands. I mean, it’s been barely twenty-four hours and we’ve already been forced into here.” He looked around and Mike felt suddenly absurd at the way they had both acted; like kids, running away from home.
“So we might be talking about escape, rather than choosing to stay,” Mike went on, following the thread of where this was going.
“And who we want to take and who we might have to leave behind,” Nick shot back, as if he was waiting for Mike to catch up. Even though he hadn’t mentioned himself directly, Mike understood what he was inferring.
“You forget I’m the beauty and you’re the brains,” Mike said, trying to make light of it. He wondered why people did that, joke about everything, even at the end of the world, rather than just be honest with each other.
“Then God help us all,” Nick replied and arched his eyebrow. “Actually, let’s leave God out of this unless we want to tie ourselves into further knots.”
“So then it might come down to kill or be killed,” Mike said and saw Nick straighten up with the truth of it.
“Yes, it might well go that way, partner,” he said quietly. “God, or otherwise.”
“I think the batteries are gone in the walkie-talkies,” Nick said, as they sat at the front desk. Their battle plan drawn for the meeting tomorrow, Nick had now started on the next part of their master-plan: dinner.
“How about your cell phone?” Mike asked, looking down to his own. He had charged it up just before the blackout and had two bars left on it. He glanced at the time.
“I haven’t owned a watch since I was twenty-one years old,” he said and was surprised to hear the wistfulness in it. He turned the phone off and saw Nick holding up the timepiece on his wrist.
“This has kept time every day for twenty-five years,” Nick said, looking over. “And it’s a wind-up. Do you like mushrooms?”
“Hate them,” Mike said, thinking about a pocket watch, a pretentious gift from friends on his birthday. It had been stolen at a house party a year later and he hadn’t even given it a second thought at the time.
“More for me then; I’m aiming to use up the perishables today and tomorrow. Anything else you don’t like?” Nick lit the camp stove up and set a pan down on it.
“Nope, just mushrooms. Everything about them: the way they look, the way they feel, the taste of them.” He stepped up to the door and looked out. Nothing had attacked them in almost a day. “Do you think any of them are still alive?”
“No way of knowing,” Nick said and his voice was quiet. Mike immediately regretted dredging up the fresh memory-wound of the little girl. He turned around to say something but saw Nick dismiss him with a wave of his hand.
“In the city, I don’t know. If it’s the same everywhere, the results the same…but then I got to thinking how it would affect a teenager if he was on drugs, or even just antibiotics or special needs kids. You think about the variables in teenage lifestyle and then factor that in against the effects it could have on an untested, virulent disease. It’s a whole spectrum we haven’t even thought about yet.”
“And they’re all in the city,” Mike said, finishing his sentence for him. “We’re starting to sound like Jules.”
“I don’t have a problem with the theories him or anyone else presents, Mike,” he answered, chopping a sea of coloured vegetables and then flung them into the pan. “It’s the way it’s presented that’s the issue.”
“Going to war is one thing but then there’s the reasons why,” Mike said, thinking back over the last few years and how muddy the world had gotten even before something like this.
“Exactly!” Nick almost shouted and the veg almost jumped to attention with his voice. “Someone’s going to claim tomorrow that the government’s wiping out our young people and that’s going to cause a stir. But it’s not going to help us make sure the Jenkins’ are going to bed warm that night or if Sarah Paxton’s daughter’s got milk to drink is it?” Mike felt his cheeks flush involuntary and saw the other man mask a smile by wiping his fingers over his chin. “I’ve kept milk back for Sarah. I’d thought we’d drop it over to her after the meeting tomorrow.”
“Good plan,” Mike mumbled, feeling stupid. “Can I help with any of this?” He said, just for something to say.
“I think you’re doing fine keeping guard, just in case our theory doesn’t hold water,” he said, gesturing to the streets outside. “Check the telescope?”
Mike wandered outside and peered down the telescope they’d set up an hour before. Mike shifted it to the bridge at the lip of the town first and saw the almost familiar maze of cars that had stacked up. Where did they all go? He wondered again, with fresh horror. He guessed a lot of them had been checking the internet on their mobiles at five pm, querying the traffic jam and…Mike angled the sights down to the water and wondered just how many had taken a header off the girders and ended up in the sea. Would they infect the water in the long term?
“Anything?” Nick called out and Mike raised his hand and gave a thumbs-down signal before tilting it over to the city and drawing a deep breath. The same carnage was there, although the smoke seemed to have subsided and the fires were flickering rather than flaming. He swung it again and looked back to the town and the candles flickering in most of the houses. What would it take to send the whole place into flames? Maybe it would only take a single well-shaped phrase from McKenzie or a single mistake.
“Incendiary,” he whispered and returned to the city, wondering if men and women had started making their way towards them yet and if that, more than anything, would be the tipping point for it all to fall into Hell. Would the folks here fear them or simply hate them? Would they feel terror because they feared infection or simply because they were strangers? Mike began to feel his headache and set down the telescope.
“Same as before,” he said and was suddenly struck by the smells coming from the room and how much they instantly raised his mood from the shadows; how fickle could a man be? Mike decided that was just one more question he could do without answering for now.
“Are you hungry?” Nick asked, wiping down his hands on his tea towel. Mike nodded and it suddenly dawned on him just how little he’d eaten and of what poor quality it had been since all this had begun.
“I could eat a horse,” and felt his stomach rumble at the latest scent.
“That could become a reality rather than an expression soon,” Nick said, but he was still smiling, as if cheered by the food itself.
“What the hell, they do it in some countries, right?” Mike said. In his head, he did a sudden checklist of all the places on his tomorrow list: Japan, Italy, and Iceland.
“Doing your 'what could have been' list?” Nick said, setting down a plate before him. Mike stared at it, not equating the bunch of vegetables he had seen a few minutes ago with what were now beaming from his plate.
“One: how did you know what I’m thinking and two: how the hell did you do this?” Mike prodded at it, imagining a rainbow might climb up the fork.
“Mike, everyone’s having the same basic set of thoughts right now,” he said, setting down his plate and warming to the subject. “What they’ve done, what they’ve haven’t done, are they worth it? Have you written the letter yet?” Mike nodded over to the bin.
“Have you?” Mike asked, before taking his first bite. It was quite possibly the finest slice of anything he’d ever tasted.
“Sure. I burned it after I wrote it. Good?” He looked up and Mike nodded.
“Tastes better than my first girlfriend and she tasted like honey and summer,” Mike said and caught himself a moment too late. Rather than look away, Nick smiled.
“Times like these loosens the tongue, too,” he said and winked. “Better to say things like that now, rather than when Glenda arrives,” he said and sounded suddenly so much like a fusty old headmaster, Mike bit his tongue to stop from laughing.
“How would she-” he began to say and then saw Nick raise his hand. Mike spun around and saw Glenda at the door, clutching a bottle of wine. Mike walked over, unlocking the deadbolts and welcoming her in.
“I see you two have moved in together,” she said, nodding back to the cars outside. “I can’t say I’m surprised.”
“I called in on Glenda on the way back here. I thought it might be nice to share a meal,” Nick said. Mike nodded and his heart sank a little, wishing he’d thought to invite Sarah. He looked out to the door and saw the woman in question walking up the steps. It took a moment for him to realise what he was seeing and leaned forward, still not quite believing.
“I made a couple of stops,” Nick said, standing up and wandering over to the frying pan. Mike stood up abruptly and banged his knee on the table as he stood.
“Smooth,” Glenda said, lighting a cigarette, looking over to the food.
“Hi,” he said, helping her in. Her daughter was asleep in her arms.
“We can put Mae on the camp bed if she’s asleep,” Nick said and welcomed her in. He’s planned the whole thing, Mike thought, as he guided her to the back room and what was now his bedroom.
“Love what you’ve done with the place,” she said and smiled, flicking the evidence cartons with a free finger.
“I like to think of it as retro,” he said and was delighted to see her smile.
The meal was a success. After the first few minutes of stilted conversation, where all of them were caught in the trap of not wanting to talk about what had happened and it being impossible to talk about anything else, things began to run more smoothly. A lot of this, Mike realised, was down to his partner, who seemed to know just the right moment to encourage someone to speak and the other times, when a silence was welcome and a pause almost needed.
The food helped, of course. The girls marvelled at the food Nick cooked and Mike joined in the sentiment while not knowing half of what the terms or the ingredients even were. He enjoyed listening and also felt a pang of sadness, realising these people had taken time to be in their homes, to develop simple skills and pleasures in a way he had not. Their house was a home while his was only ever a place to stay in between the job. It made him wonder how much more the situation mattered to them, as people of the community. Mike felt that vague drifting sensation of being an outsider, like most of his life, though it made his resolution to help stronger rather than weaker and felt a part of something in a way he had rarely experienced.
“You certainly missed your calling, Nicky,” Glenda said as the dessert, an impossibly elegant looking pie, sat in the centre of the table. It looked almost unreal to Mike, like the perfect fake food they laid out on film sets.
“I second that,” he chipped in, passing around the plates. “Shall I cut it up?” The others nodded and he grabbed the knife. As he cut it, there was the feeling of plunging into it, almost pushing through the layers, rather than cutting. The first slice tumbled onto the plate and he passed it over to Sarah.
“Thank you,” she said, looking up at him and then down to the pie. Mike stifled a smile and accepted he was a poor second to what was in her hands. He went on, taking a thick slice back to his seat and watched as Sarah raised her cup.
“Compliments to the chef,” she said and the rest of them brushed their cups together. There was a second pause, where someone could have said something more, could have offered a prayer or a message. Instead, they just lapsed back into easy silence. Mike was glad; it felt right to just to appreciate a moment’s happiness and a few hours of calm.
“Where did you learn to cook like this?” Mike said after a while and saw a twinkle in the older man’s eye.
“I started in the army and fined tuned it when I finished up, but the work was pretty scarce so I took this job instead.” Mike got the idea there was a whole other story layered in between the one he’d just heard but decided to let it go.
“Maybe you can give it a go now,” Glenda said and Mike looked around in momentary confusion. Her eyes were a little heavy and red from the wine. “Why not? The way I see it, we’ve been offered a fresh start. Everything that went before is over, so now we can start again. Nick can be a chef and I’ll go back to pottery like I always planned to.”
“I guess it’s never too late to start over,” Nick said good-naturedly, taking the edge off the hard tone Glenda was using. “I always said when I retired, so now’s as good a time as any…How about you, Sarah? Any hidden ambitions?”
“What besides being the number one stared at ass in town?” She said and broke into a broad smile that made the rest of them laugh.
“You’re lucky to have that thing, sweetheart,” Glenda said and then winked.
“I wouldn’t mind so much if they showed it in their tips as much as their eyes,” she went on, still grinning. “I think…I think I’ll be a librarian. I always liked reading and I was ready for college before Mae came my way, so…”
“Might be the time when the world goes back to books,” Nick said thoughtfully. Sarah shrugged her shoulders and smiled.
“I always liked looking at my books up on the shelf when I was a kid. The way they rested against each other, like they were all friends or companions. I used to run my finger along them before I got ready to go to sleep and they’d make me feel tired, at peace. It was a good feeling.” Mike watched as Sarah blushed, as if she’d caught herself telling a secret that was meant to stay hidden. The grin slipped away but there was still a little smile on the corners of her mouth and somehow Mike thought that made her look even prettier.
“How about you, sheriff?” Glenda said, sipping from her glass. It was the last of the wine and she had drunk most of it. Mike hoped she wouldn’t be hung-over in the morning when they had to face McKenzie and his team.
“Just that,” he said, “A sheriff and nothing else.” He looked around and felt embarrassed that he didn’t have some other secret skill, like the rest of them did. “It’s the only thing I ever wanted….and the only thing I was ever good at.”
“I’ll vouch for that,” Nick said and raised his cup towards Mike.
“You’re lucky when the thing you’re good at happens to be your job,” Sarah added and Mike nodded, struck by the simple truth of what she’d said. Suddenly, he didn’t feel so embarrassed. A moment of stillness descended over the table, the topic spent and none of them sure if there was another one left in them now, at this late hour.
“Anyone want to take a run at another slice?” Mike said, lifting the knife and smiling at the half-hearted objections that followed.
Mike volunteered to see Sarah home and immediately felt foolish when he realised he’d have to sit shotgun in her car. Glenda was asleep on the sofa, Nick in bed. The car started the first time and as they drove through the streets, Mike was struck again by the complete stillness of the town, now with the added feature of it being lit only by candlelight. He worried at the idea of any of the folks not having candles and reminded himself to check people at the meeting tomorrow. The car slowed as they entered Sarah’s road, she looked over at him and smiled.
“I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard absolutely nothing at all,” she said.
Mike smiled back.
“Back to books and quiet,” she said, as the car came to a halt. Mike looked over the house, saw it looked undisturbed and was thankful. On the way over, he had images of graffiti being trailed over the door, the windows smashed in. Neither of them spoke as she collected her daughter from the back seat and closed the car doors as gently as they could. Mike followed as she walked up to the front steps, fished out her keys and opened the door all in one smooth action. Mike stepped in first and shone his torch around the open plan of the living room. Nothing felt wrong to him and she slipped by him, settling the young girl down on the carry-cot in the centre of the room. Mike stepped away, out to the front step, feeling suddenly like an intruder in the woman’s house.
As he stood and waited for her to settle her daughter, Mike rehearsed what it was he wanted to say. Without wanting to, he heard her padding around the small apartment and could followed her footsteps as she approached the front door.
“Come in Mike,” was all she said and then disappeared from the door and into the darkness.
A DOZEN MASKS
Julian McKenzie sat in his chair and looked out to the town. It looked a small thing in comparison to the city burning behind it. A small pocket in the Hell raging all around but it was his and he wanted it all. He had affection for it that went above all else. Part of that love had stemmed from his father’s storytelling of the years gone by; what the old man had started with and what he had accumulated given time. The tales were harsh, certainly, but to the young Julian, they were inspiring more than anything else. This is what a person can be, given, commitment, given strength, he had thought, even as a child. An idea that was only supported by the stony eyes of his father as he related the history of the town and how he had shaped it through cool, hard influence.
From somewhere, a sudden thud disrupted his thinking and Julian turned briefly to see if the madman, Jules, was lumbering anywhere nearby. Relieved to see he was still alone, Julian returned his gaze to the dead town. The other noise, the one in the attic, had been stilled now, he had seen to that, but now there was this other man-child to contend with. Julian sighed and reminded himself of the usefulness of the fool as he lit a cigar to placate his rising anger. A means to an end, he thought and was content with that notion for now.
The concept of taking the town over, of controlling the few and scattered folk, sent a thrill through his bones Julian had rarely known. Just the idea of it, of navigating one man to a certain spot, a woman to another, all of them under his wing and susceptible to every whim, made the flesh on the forearm stand up. Yes, they had feared him in the past, or perhaps, they had only feared the long shadow his father had cast over them. But now was his time. Julian’s reach would go farther and his clutch would grip tighter than even the old man had managed in the past. It was a new era and it demanded a man such as him to build it with vision and strength.
He looked down to the sheet of paper and read through the names of each resident in town. Pencil lines ran through the dead and crosses sat by those he earmarked for trouble. The rest he regarded with a sharp loathing, as sheep waiting to be herded and failing that, lemmings ready to be pushed from the cliff. If certain bargains had to be struck, he would do so. If fools such as the man downstairs had to be suffered, then that too, would be endured. To topple a community, Julian understood, a man had to wear a dozen masks but never show his true face.
They hate me, he thought, looking down the list, and I hate them. Even the ones who pretended to admire him; bedfellows in business, had no compassion for him and for that Julian was glad. He thought of the church crones and how they had clambered for his favour as soon as they were offered a strong, structured image to fawn over. Julian had read once that in the Byzantine era, Greeks would make a show of their wealth to prove that God favoured them. It was a wonderfully twisted idea and he imagined what the Bible-thumpers would make of it if he shared that notion in the days to come. He laughed, relishing the idea of their faces sagging in numb shock but then righted himself, knowing, for now, it was not an option. To see their dumbstruck faces, he thought and allowed himself one more grin.
“For each group a mask and in each word, a promise,” he said out loud, remembering the pact he had made to himself when all the madness had started and the opportunities had become apparent.
For what else was there for a man such as him? Over the years, he had accumulated wealth and stacked up pleasure in the suffering and abuse inflicted on first his staff and then others who had sought to get close. It was a dilemma he thought all powerful men must suffer; the question of what else life could bring after money had let them sample all that was on offer. The internet had opened avenues for more extreme pursuits, but not even in his dark dreams could he have imagined it would have offered up an opportunity such as this. To claim an entire town, he thought, almost not believing his own good fortune, to suffocate the masses.
Somewhere, he heard the sound of a car in the distance. Maybe it was the useless lawmen or even the nurse who people spoke of as little more than a vet. Maybe it was even Sarah Paxton, the woman he had earmarked for the following months and who openly despised his glances. No matter, no matter, he thought, picturing each of their faces, reading their names on the sheet, the crosses thick against their names and screwed the paper up into a ball before letting the cigar brush against it, sending it into flames.
Chris Castle is an English teacher in Greece. He has been published over 300 times and has been featured in various end of year and best of anthologies. He is currently writing a novel. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be reached for feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chris has become a regular contributor to our journal: His stories, Grid, Slumber, Last House on Vector Street, Stealing Three, Zombie Cake, Button and Pa, The Garden, Butterfly Eater, Finger, and The Last House all consecutively appear in the January, April, June, August, October, and December 2013 issues of HelloHorror and its February, April, August, and October 2014 issues. Chris Castle's novel, Bedlam Days, is serialized in HelloHorror. Part 1 appears in the Winter 2015 issue, Part 2 appears in the Winter 2015 issue, Part 3 appears in the Summer 2015 issue, Part 4 appears in the Halloween 2015 issue, and Part 5 appears in the Winter 2016 issue of HelloHorror.
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