Muffled

Warning: contains bad language.

 

1

I had walked the street a thousand times in the past seven months. Before it all happened, I had only traversed it a handful of times. Before it all happened, I had barely paid the piece of road any attention at all, and why should I have? It was the same as many others in the area; a few houses, several shops and stores, a scattering of warehouses and industrial buildings, and the like. Admittedly, not a particularly beautiful place.

But after… it became a place of great significance to me. I lost my home, as many others had, and scuttled away, looking for safety, like a cockroach. Unlike many others, I actually found a safe place. It had once been an industrial area of some sort, with storage units. I had discovered it with five other people. It was just me now. Rattling around inside, all alone, making sure all the exits were covered.

Who knows… perhaps if it had been just me by my lonesome straight from the get-go, maybe I wouldn’t have made it? It was pure chance that I got wept into their little group. Benevolent altruism, or something, I don’t know. It didn’t matter much now. They were gone, and I was still here. They were good people. All of them. I missed them dearly, even though our tenure together had been brief.

The street had gotten progressively worse – several burnt-out cars were dotted here-and-there, and there were a handful of bodies littering the road – but for the most part it had remained an unobstructed pathway, and a partial safe spot. A place to catch your breath if things got too hairy out in the city. When you got back to the street, you knew you could get back to base fairly quickly.

The road had taken on a symbolic meaning, for me. It represented the transition between the dangerous unpredictability of the city, and the comfort and safety of my base; my new home.

I had gotten lost several times. Panicked, heart-stopping moments in my life, where I ran around the alleyways recklessly and without abandon. Thinking about those times now, I had been very careless. I could’ve been killed so easily. But I was lucky. Each time, I found this street again. And from there, I got back to the industrial unit that I slept in, in a sleeping bag on the cold concrete floor. Thus, whenever I got back to the street – my street – I felt comfort and safety. Whenever I got back to my street, it meant I had made it. At least for that day.

 

2

It had started snowing the night before and had gotten progressively heavier as the hours ticked by. I had noted its hardening fall as I scavenged the local area, as I did every day – from sunrise to sunset. Sure, being conspicuous was a problem during the daylight hours, but it also meant that I couldn’t get lost in the darkness. It also reduced my chances of accidentally getting ambushed. The pros outweighed the cons, and in this modern world, there were cons to everything. Hell, if the cons prevented you from doing something, you wouldn’t do anything.

My quotidian foraging run had been largely unsuccessful; I knew that someday soon I was going to have to expand the circumference of my search-zone. The thought made me uncomfortable. It would definitely be more dangerous. And the chances of getting lost would increase exponentially.

The colour of the sky was beginning to darken, and I felt my body starting to get colder. I checked my watch – one of the few things I could count on in this new world – it was 4:37 p.m. I knew I should get back soon. It wouldn’t be good to be out in the city after dark.

I shouldered my bag and began the trek back, ensuring to quietly close the front door to the house I had been looting. I gently shook my can and sprayed a circle on the door. Walking down the road, I counted the doors with paint. These others had either a tick sprayed across a circle – indicating that the abode had been thoroughly searched – or a large cross. I made sure to avoid the ones with crosses. Those houses were occupied by the dead.

Several alleyways away from home – about a road-and-a-half away from my safe street – I ran into a group of three. They had been standing in the entry of a side street, gazing off into the distance as they always did. Normally, I would have heard their heavy breathing or their mournful moans, but in the hushed and muted snowfall, sounds were quiet. Plus, I was in a rush to get out of the ensuing storm.

I didn’t realise they were even there, until I collided with one of them. We both went clattering to the floor, tumbling into the snow. My first thought was: I’m dead. This is it – I’m dead. My next thought was: Please be quick. Don’t be painful. Be quick. I cringed as I anticipated their hungry teeth tearing at my tender flesh.

I heard a growl close to my face and I opened my eyes. The one I had hit was reaching for me. His face was all wrong. I scrambled away from him on my hands and knees, and that was when the other two grasped me from behind. They might have been dead, but they were strong. The force of them tugging me made me gasp with shock.

I didn’t get a proper look at them, but one was gripping my left forearm, the other was clutching the bag on my back. I yanked my arm away from the one on my left – it was a woman, I saw, a blonde woman with a bloody scalp and angry eyes – and punched with my free hand. My fist struck her in the chest, and she momentarily released me as she staggered backwards with a hiss. I heard the awful sound of my jacket ripping as she stumbled.

There was a flash of movement over my right shoulder, and I realised the one back there was trying to bite the unprotected flesh of my neck. I recoiled away from the incoming teeth and frantically began to wriggle my way out of the straps of the bag. You can have it, I thought, maniacally. Have it, have it all!

The one crawling on the floor had reached me now – his hands were grasping at my boot. In that split-second, I saw that most of the nails had been bloodily ripped from his fingers. For some reason, that sight made me cringe most of all in the moment.

I was still caught in the bag, fighting like a trapped rabbit. The woman I had shoved away had recovered and was now lurching drunkenly towards me with her rictus of hate. Once again, I mentally prepared for pain and death. Death did not frighten me. A painful death, however, I did fear.

I heard another hungry snarl behind me as the one that had me in its embrace snapped its mouth towards my nape again. I made one last ditch effort to get away. I violently shoved the one behind me with my back, whilst pinching my arms together. There was a confused gasp from the thing that had once been a citizen of the city as it tripped over. My arms slid effortlessly through the straps as the dead thing fell backwards with a thud and a wheeze.

I kicked angrily out at the man grabbing my foot. “Fuck. OFF!” I screamed at his wrong face. I felt vitriol coursing through me, now. That was good. That was very good. My foot connected with what remained of his nose, and blood exploded across the clean canvas of the snow as his head snapped backwards with a crack.

The woman on my left had now reached me, but I dodged her flailing arms and grabbing fingers with an agility I didn’t even know I possessed. I then leapt over the man on the floor – he was still reeling from the kick, but I had no doubt he would recover quickly – and sprinted off down the alleyway.

 

3

In the distance I could hear them, but they were muffled. I pretended they weren’t there. It wouldn’t hurt, for a few minutes or so, to imagine that I was all alone. To imagine that I was completely safe. To imagine that the world had never changed, and that it was as it had always been.

I was standing in the street. Home was not too far away, now. The snow had covered the corpses that were dotted like pimples on the road, subtracting from their menace. The white powder sprinkled on the black skeletons of the cars, giving them an eerie, lonely beauty.

The tear on my sleeve had not gone all the way through, thankfully. I had checked the skin underneath, thoroughly, until I was pink and numb with the cold. There was no scratch on my arm. My flesh remained unsullied.

My bag – and the contents inside – was gone. But that did not matter. It held only a day’s worth of searching inside, and it was a poor bounty at that. I would get a new bag, and would gradually begin exploring further away, broadening my radius. I would find more resources. I would. I would. I would.

I raised my face to the sky, and closed my eyes, letting the snowflakes land delicately on my face. Not everything was lost. I was not lost. I breathed in deeply. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight, I told myself. Four, seven, eight. That’s the key. I forced my heart rate to return to normal. Slowly, the blood pounding in my ears gradually abated.

Everything was muffled. It was as though the whole world had been wrapped in cotton wool. The moans riding on the wind were muffled. The distant sounds of crackling fires and crunching glass were muffled. The thudding, slithering movements behind me… muffled.

I breathed in deeply and smiled. And then continued walking.

 

22nd February 2019

 

Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest

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