Printed Words

Warning: contains bad language.

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1

The worst moment came when I needed to use the bathroom. I had held on for as long as I could – until my bladder was at exploding point, actually – but I knew I would have to go sooner rather than later.

But how would I do it? I looked around, searching for something to aid me in this process. At that moment, I was simultaneously relieved and miserable that I was unaccompanied; I was deeply lonely and terrified, but glad that nobody was present to witness such an embarrassing spectacle.

My eyes fell on an empty soda bottle. I considered it for a moment. It could contain my urine and it could be closed afterwards. The last thing I wanted was to spill a bottle of piss in here.

Slowly, I crawled over to the bottle and picked it up. It still had a few brown droplets coating the inside. I span it around in my hands. There was a lot of rubbish written on the label; the ridiculously long ingredients list (what the hell was E150d?), the total amount of fats and sugars (R.I.P. teeth), over five different copyright logos, a few different website addresses, a label telling me that the expiration date could be found on the lid of all places, and right at the bottom was volume: 550 ml.

The number didn’t mean a lot to me, I wasn’t very good at estimating or guessing anything when it came to numbers. Q: How far away is that car? A: No idea; Q: How heavy is that table? A: Be buggered if I know; Q: How much can the average human piss? A: Who the hell knows this sort of rubbish?

How much did the average human bladder hold? I had been bursting for… well, I didn’t know how long. I didn’t have a watch, and my phone had died pretty quickly. I assumed that whatever amount of liquid I had sloshing around in my belly was a bit bigger than the average. I didn’t want to start filling up the bottle, only for it to overfill. That would be a ghastly sight! I had no idea how long I’d be here; I had no intention of sitting here in the stench of my own produce.

I supposed I could just… stop, when the bottle was filled. Hopefully that’d be enough to take some of the pressure from my poor bladder. Could you stop mid-stream? I had no idea. I had never tried. I had never needed to try. What if I couldn’t? What if I started, saw that the bottle was going to overflow, but couldn’t stop relieving myself? It’d be messy. And perhaps worst of all, noisy.

It was something I’d just have to risk, I realised. I needed to go, and I needed to go now. If I sat here overthinking it forever, I’d end up either rupturing something inside, or wetting myself.

Gradually, gently, I unscrewed the lid and placed it within reach. I began to unzip my jeans – doing so slowly, to not make a sound, my heavy bladder already cheering with relief – when a thought struck me: How loud will it be?

I imagined my stream hitting the bottom of that hard-plastic container. It would roar like a waterfall in the current, deafening silence. And what then?

I knew the answer to that question. Then they’ll find me. Scenes from earlier flashed in my mind – the blood, the carnage, the screaming, the bodies on the floor, the stampede, the pandemonium, the bodies when they started getting back up.

My eyes darted around the interior of the newspaper kiosk, my head swivelling back and forth. I was on the verge of crying, which scared me. Not because I was frightened of crying, but because I had to stay silent.

What could I use? What could help me?

My gaze fell upon the bin. Poking out of the lid was the corner of a takeaway carton. For lunch, I’d gotten a burger from the kebab shop down the road.

I delicately opened the brown, Styrofoam box. It squealed a little, and I froze for a second, ears pricked. I heard nothing, so I continued. Inside the box was some discarded salad, a bit of an onion ring, and a used napkin. Gingerly, I took the greasy serviette out and carefully lowered the box back into the bin. The paper towel was covered in cold, congealed sauce. I grimaced.

I unfolded the napkin to its full size and ripped it into eights. I then stuffed each of the pieces down the bottle’s neck. The first couple absorbed some of the sticky brown liquid, and I cursed – I needed them to be dry and fluffy – but the rest were okay.

I repositioned myself over the bottle, kneeling. I didn’t want to do this standing for two reasons: 1) standing up and sitting back down could be noisy (I might knock something over), and 2) if the bottle did overflow, the sound of my wee hitting the floor could also be noisy.

I prayed that the scraps of paper would dampen the sound. And then I let my bladder go. Slowly.

Pit-pit-pit-pit pat-pat-pat-pat. I eased out tiny spurts at a time, a few droplets here and there. Pit-pit-pit-pit pat-pat-pat-pat. My throbbing and aching bladder complained, wanting a full release. The paper inside the bottle was doing its job; the sound was almost non-existent. Pit-pit-pit-pit pat-pat-pat-pat. But it was absorbing a lot of liquid very quickly. How much longer would it be functional? Pit-pit-pit-pit pat-pat-pat-pat. My bladder was half-empty now, and I was feeling more like my usual self.

Splash!

I froze.

In my momentary ecstasy of being relieved, I had let myself go completely. Right at the moment that the paper towels had been used up and were floating in a pool of urine.

I clamped my bladder shut, and my stream died in my hands.

A cold sweat crept up all over my body.

I listened; my breath caught in my throat.

Beyond the walls of my kiosk, beyond the closed metal shutter, the world was hushed. I could hear nothing. I strained my ears further, for a noise, a sound, anything that might indicate something was amiss. There was only silence. Wait—no, there was a noise.

It was a delicate sound. Easy to miss. I couldn’t tell what it was at first. When I was on the verge of recognising it, it stopped. I frowned, penis in my hand, bladder still quite full, listening, attentive. I focused. The blood in my eardrums was now throbbing and pulsing.

The world was silent once more. I was just about to return to the task at hand, when the noise started up again. This time, it was much closer. It was right behind the kiosk. I gave a tiny squeal – I couldn’t help it – and a small jet of piss shot out of me. Splish-splash! I gasped in horror; breath caught in my throat.

It was a dragging, scraping sound. There was also an odd, cracking, crunching undertone. The noise was moving. Moving around my little newspaper kiosk. I followed the sound with my eyes.

Drag and scrape. And then quieter: crunch and crack. Was it circling me? My eyes snapped to the doorway. It was locked. I knew it was. I had locked it one panicked second after I had slammed the blood-splattered metal shutters down.

Drag. Scrape. Crunch. Crack.

I gasped.

Or had I? I questioned whether I had locked it, as the awful sound slid round the left side of my hideaway, towards the employees’ entrance. What if I had just aimlessly turned the key in the lock? Turned it the wrong way in my fright? It was possible – I had done it once before when leaving for the evening, and Mr. Kazinsky had chewed me out the next morning. That day I had been so sure that I had locked up, but I had, in fact, left the door completely open. To open the door from the outside, you had to turn the key left, and to lock it, vice versa. From the inside, the directions were the opposite. Which direction had I turned the key? Had I heard that little click that signified the door was sealed? I no longer knew.

Drag. Scrape. Crack. Crunch. And then another sound: a mournful moan. Deep, rasping, and sad. Longing.

It was right outside the door.

My bladder throbbed.

Drag. Scrape. Crunch. Crack.

Was it moving on?

That groan was uttered again, this time to the right of the doorway. It was leaving. I relaxed a little and took a deep breath – I hadn’t even been aware that I had been holding it. I still needed to go to the bathroom, but I decided I’d wait a few minutes, until it had absolutely left—

SLAM!

The metal shutters shuddered violently. I screamed and jumped at the same time, involuntarily spraying urine across the floor as I instantly emptied my bladder.

Something snarled on the other side of the kiosk and hit the shutters again. SLAM!

I skidded backwards on the floor, away from the sound, propelling myself using my hands and feet. I was all too aware of the warm puddle I had dragged myself through. I collided with the flimsy back shelf of the kiosk and a cascade of papers and magazines came fluttering down around me, the image of startled pigeons taking flight suddenly appearing in my mind.

SLAM! Slam-slam-slam!

It had heard me. It knew I was here.

Slamslamslamslam!

My heart was thudding destructively. I could almost feel it colliding against the inside of my ribcage.

SLAM! SLAM! SLAM! SLAM! SLAMSLAMSLAM!

It was angry.

As I sat in a pool of piss and printed words, my eyes darted around the inner kiosk, taking in the sights at random, my thoughts incoherent. Are we paying our teachers too much? Be the REAL you! Comes with a free sticker album! Twelve die in arson attack Eat yourself thin! You won’t believe what Sasha’s husband did during their honeymoon! Are YOUR children obese? How to stop worrying and be happy! Kelsey reveals her latest diet! The latest racism scandal that’s rocking the government pg. 42 EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW Poverty rates rising BOOBS! FOOTBALL! BEER! CARS! Your weekly LADS magazine! Free CD!

Meanwhile: SLAM! SLAM! SLAM! SLAM!

How long could the metal shutter withstand that? It wasn’t a heavy-duty barrier, just something to deter local vandals and thieves and—

SLAMSLAMSLAMSLAM!

Eat yourself thin! Twelve die in arson attack Be the REAL you!

SLAMSLAMSLAMSLAM! The snarling was intensifying.

—and would that hollow metallic banging attract others? Oh, God, what if it attracts others? My mind was spiralling outwards, further, further, as panic invaded my thoughts and ran and—

SLAMSLAMSLAM! And dear God, was that a second growl?

—and then something—

Eat yourself thin! Be the REAL you! BOOBS! FOOTBALL! BEER! CARS! Your weekly LADS magazine!

—something—

SLAMSLAMSLAMSLAM!

The latest racism scandal that’s rocking the government pg. 42 Are YOUR children obese? EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW Free CD! Eat yourself thin!

—and then something—

2

And then something inside me snapped.

The room swayed momentarily, before swimming back into focus.

I sat there for a second, listening to the rattling metal of the shutters and the animalistic growls, worrying whether I had just lost the last vestiges of my sanity. But… no, that wasn’t quite it. After a moment’s reflection, I was able to put my finger on it; it was my fear. My fear had burst, like an overinflated balloon.

Hell, I thought, staring at the shaking shutters with a cool steadiness, maybe this is insanity. True insanity, anyway.

I stood up. I felt good. I felt like the real me. I looked at my hands. They were no longer trembling. My bladder was also no longer bursting – for obvious reasons. I was breathing normally. I guessed that I had learned how to stop worrying and be happy. I grinned madly, and casually zipped my fly back up.

“What did Sasha’s husband do, anyway?” I said out loud.

The snarling, slamming attack grew more aggressive.

I edged towards the kiosk’s door and pinched the key – it was still dangling out of the lock – between my thumb and finger, and turned it to the right.

Click!

“Huh,” I muttered. “Guess I had locked it, after all.”

I pushed the door open. A breeze ushered its way inside. I took a deep breath of the night’s crisp air, and then left the safety and the stink of the kiosk behind.

3

It was darker now. The sun had departed, and the streetlights had come on. Their yellow-orange glow gently illuminated the carnage outside. Evidence of the massacre stretched off, up the road, and over the hill. It was about as bad as I had feared, but seeing it with my own eyes calmed me. There would be no more guessing or what ifs.

Not everything in my line of sight was motionless, but I reckoned they were far enough away to not be a bother for a few minutes. Around the corner to my right, I could still hear my would-be attackers pounding away against the outer metal shutters of the newspaper kiosk.

I slowly stole to the edge of the small structure and peered around the side.

There they were; stood at the shutters, spectres in the orange-hued dusk. Had the day’s events not occurred, they would have appeared to be normal people, queuing up to buy a magazine or newspaper before heading home for the evening.

One was an overweight man, maybe in his mid-fifties. The other was shorter, skinnier – a woman. It was hard to place her age. Anywhere from late-twenties to mid-forties, I guessed. From the light provided by the streetlamps, I could see that the man’s right ankle had been snapped ninety degrees to the side, and a sharp, ragged bone was sticking out the bottom. That explained the noises I had heard.

Smeared, crimson handprints plastered the shutters. They had hammered on the barrier until they bled. Or perhaps their hands hand been bloody before.

Behind them, the road was littered with the violence of that afternoon. Shards of glass glinted in the glow of the lamps. Newspapers, bags, items of clothing, and all manner of personal effects were scattered over the pavement and road. Motionless silhouettes of vehicles waited, here and there. Most of cars – although many had apparently crashed – were contained to the road, but what seemed to be an ambulance was lying overturned on the pavement several hundred feet ahead, effectively severing the path, its underbelly a dark grey. And, of course, there were bodies. Some still. Others moving.

There are only two, for now, I thought, as I watched them. Practice.

“Hey there,” I said, flatly.

They stopped their hammering, arms dropping lifelessly to their sides. The pair stumbled around clumsily as a sorrowful moan escaped their stained lips, as if they were asking a question. I felt their dead eyes crawling over me in that moment, and in spite of my newfound loss of fear, a shiver ran down my spine.

The woman was the first to snarl, baring her teeth like a wild dog. Then the realisation that I was food arose in the man, and his facial expression darkened with anger and excitement.

I sucked in a breath, and I felt my heart rate slow and my vision sharpen.

Then they came for me, all teeth and nails.

Despite the approaching horror, I felt hope. They were so slow. The ruination of the city around me was testament to their ferocity, but they moved so sluggishly.

The man reached me first, as he had been closer. I noticed with disgust that a chunk of flesh ranging from the top of his scalp to his cheek bone had been torn away, including his eye. He came at me, arms flailing, hands opening and closing, teeth bared.

“EAT YOURSELF THIN!” I screamed in his face as I sidestepped his grasp. He stumbled past me and I shoved as hard as I could into the base of his back, sending him toppling over with such ease that I was surprised. The exposed bone from his leg scratched against the concrete like nails on a blackboard.

“Hrraaaaarrhh!” screeched what had once been a woman, reaching for me like a banshee from the shadows. She was faster than the big guy, but not swift enough to catch her quarry.

I leapt backwards from the attack and onto the road, where several cars – some of them merely burnt-out shells – rested. The woman tried to follow me and tripped on the raised curb. She went flailing and hit the floor face-first with a crunching thud. There was a low growl as she raised her shredded face. I suspected that her nose was now broken, although she seemed undeterred by this fact. She should have been bleeding from her wounds but wasn’t; the skin was just torn like thin paper. She continued to reach for me hungrily, as she pedalled her feet against the floor for purchase, trying to right herself.

Somewhere in the nearby shadows, I heard the one with the broken leg shuffling around. I suspected he was crawling on the ground, in the shadows.

Enough, I thought, simply. That’s enough.

I took one last glance at the newspaper kiosk. I had previously thought it to be a sanctuary, but I now saw it for what it really was: a cell. A place to die. It reeked of timidity.

I hit the road running, the cool breeze in my face.

I knew if I kept moving, kept thinking, I’d always be two steps ahead of them. I ran and ran, feet slapping the tarmac. Be the REAL you! Learn how to stop worrying and be happy!

I knew exactly where I was going.

16th August 2019

Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest

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