Venison Episode 3: School

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In the thick darkness, it felt like all of my senses had been robbed from me. I simply stood, stock still, waiting to see if the shadows would materialize. After a few moments, the black began to subside. Until my eyes adjusted, the darkness had been absolute. I could just start to make out the shapes of lockers along the wall and an old, crooked banner hanging from the ceiling in front of us.

I absently reached for the light switch on the wall next to me. I flicked it on and off a few times, despite the fact that I knew there was no juice. Oh well, worth a shot. I heard movement to my right and I backed up against the wall. I stood still and nearly hit the roof when I heard a percussive cough. Callum. In the oppressive darkness, I had almost forgotten about my friend.

I listened as he shuffled toward a nearby trashcan and started vomiting. His voice trembled nervously after every heave. I wasn’t sure what to do at this moment. There’s no manual for being a good friend after the world ends. Maybe after all this blows over, I could write one.

“Step One: stand awkwardly to the side as your friend pukes his guts out in a zombie-infested school.”

Okay maybe not. So, I just waited until he finished. My eyes had adjusted enough to watch him walk over to me, embarrassment practically written across his face in red permanent marker.

“No worries, buddy, I’m scared too,” I offered in a lame attempt to console him. Of course I was scared, but I knew that comfort just didn’t come that easy. “Maybe they’re all dead. We’ll just walk right into the lab and grab the radios and walk right back out, no problem.”

“We are going to freaking die in here man,” Callum responded with a trembling voice.

“You don’t know that–it’ll be just like a video game,” I thought that might help, but Callum groaned so I corrected myself. “The most boring video game ever, because we’re not going to run into trouble at all.”

The last word was fresh out of my mouth when a faint wail echoed through the metal and tile hallways of the high school. The chilling sound froze my blood and echoed around my head as if it had come from right next to me. I felt my cheeks flush and my knees went limp. It took a concerted effort to make sure I didn’t topple to the floor in a heap of sobbing college student.

The sound still bounced around the halls and inside of my mind when Callum asked, “What was that?”

I had very much hoped the sound came from my imagination, but Callum’s question confirmed my biggest fear. I tried to choke out a word or two in response but I found nothing. I realized I was holding my breath, so I released it slowly through clenched teeth.

“Gray, what’s wrong with you?”

Now he’s the brave one. Cripes, I can’t handle this. I can barely watch a scary movie or play a scary game without having nightmares. Now I’m living one.

“Gray?” Callum squeezed my shoulder, whispering straight into the side of my head.

I looked at him with slow movements as I tried to compose myself. “We go quietly,” I said, “Fast and easy. We get these stupid radios and get out before any of those monsters know we’re even here. Got it?”

Callum just nodded slowly in response. I nodded back.

I crouched down and started to walk awkwardly and down the hallway. I’m not sure why I crouched. In video games, characters always crouch when they want to be quiet, but I felt like I was making a racket. I decided that it was a worthless exercise and stood up.

Thud.

I fell back to the floor as a grotesque face slammed against the narrow glass window in the door next to me. I scooted across the hall as the snarling face pressed against the glass, yellow eye boring into me like a drill bit. His teeth scraped against the glass in a shrill tone that made the back of my neck hurt. Callum crashed down beside me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the chomper staring at me through the window. Quids. That’s what Daryl had called them.

“Zombies are dumb, right?” Callum asked, breathing heavily. “They can’t open doors or anything, right?”

“What is this, Jurassic Park?” I asked in my routine sarcasm. For better or for worse, that sarcasm was how I dealt with stressful situations. “I don’t think they’re quite zombies, and I remember reports of them being…” I trailed off as the face disappeared from the window. I stared at the doorknob, waiting for it to turn and unleash horror on us, but the turn never came. I let out a breath and leaned my head against the locker behind me.

“Let’s go, man,” Callum said and tugged me to my feet. We took three steps down the hallway when I heard a sound that completely ruined any hope I had.

The fire alarm. The stupid zombie had pulled the fire alarm.

Lights began to flash in a bright strobe, disorienting us. The deafening sound bounced from wall to wall; the sharpness of the alarm cutting through the air straight into my ears. I could almost feel the pressure of the alarm in my head, squeezing my skull. I slapped my hands over my ears and tried to run down the hallway. My balance was off so I stumbled often, but I made it to the end of the hallway. I turned around to check on Callum and saw him running toward me. He had no way of knowing what stood right behind him.

Flash.

The quid stood in the hallway, staring with hunched shoulders after my friend. In the flashing lights, I could just see him breathing with effort, chest heaving with each breath. In another flash, he was gone. How the…?

Callum reached me and asked which way we should go. Like I would know. I examined the wall behind Cal for any signage or anything helpful. Nothing. I peered down the hallways, heart racing. I could barely focus. I glanced back to where we had come from, but there were still no signs of the zombie.

Flash.

Down the hall, to our right, I saw something that struck me dumb. I had to wait for the next flash of light to confirm what I saw. “Of course,” I muttered and started off in that direction.

“Of course what?” Callum asked following right behind me, “Is this where the cafeteria is?”

“No, but it’s the next best thing,” I shouted, waiting for another flash so I could get a good look at the door in front of me. Closed. I reached for the handle, hoping against hope that it would be unlocked. It wasn’t. Of course not, that would just be too easy.

I looked around for something I could use, but I could only see so much between the flashes. Callum watched me still wondering what I was doing.

“Don’t watch me, you idiot! One of us has to keep an eye out for chomps!” I gestured to the shotgun slung over his shoulder and he reluctantly pointed it out in front of him as he turned away from me. His inexperience showed as he pumped the slide and held it ready with a shaky hand, peering at the alternating dark and light of the hallway.

I pulled out my handgun and felt around the door. Wood. God bless these old schools. I aimed for about where I thought the latch would be. I couldn’t be sure if this would work or not, but I had seen it in enough movies to feel good about trying. I waited for the klaxon to hit a crescendo and pulled the trigger.

Flash.

I had thought the alarm was loud. But in the confined spaces of the hallway, the gunshot was earsplitting. Through ringing ears and the incessant alarm in the background, I heard Callum yelling at me. I couldn’t make it out through the tinnitus, so I ignored it and examined the door instead. I saw a hole and a lot of splintered wood, but the door hadn’t sprung open as I had expected.

It looked like the bullet had gone through most of the bolt, but it had mainly just warped the metal at an odd angle in the doorjamb. I pushed on the door, testing it, and it gave a little, the latch rattling in the splintered door.

“Gray?” I finally made out a word in Callum’s panicked voice. I turned to see him staring into the hallway, frozen.

Flash.

The chomp now stood just ten or fifteen feet away. I could hear a crackling growl underneath the loud alarm. The inhuman sound sent pinpricks down my spine.

“Shoot it, Cal!” I yelled and threw a shoulder into the door. It gave and I found myself crashing down a stairway. Before I hit the ground, I heard Callum’s gunshot. I rolled onto my back, groaning in pain, and looked toward the doorway.

Flash.

A silhouette entered the frame, and my heart stopped. The organ must’ve started back up because I heard the silhouette talking to me.

“Holy crap, man, are you alright?” Callum said as he stepped into the closet and pushed the door shut. With the latch still warped inside the door, Callum managed to wedge it shut somewhat. The alarm was much more tolerable behind the closed door. I felt like I could think clearly for the first time in years.

“Did you get him?” I asked Callum. It was so dark in the closet with the door shut, I couldn’t make out much more than his silhouette.

“I’m not sure man,” he said, his voice unsure. “The next time the strobe flashed, he was gone.”

I groaned acknowledgment as I sat up. I reached around in my pocket for the old flashlight I had grabbed from Mason’s. I flicked it on and examined our surroundings. Tall green boxes towered over us as we sat on the floor. Metal and PVC tubing ran from the boxes into the ceiling and walls. There were a few small, grey metal doors in the walls that looked like breaker panels. The floor was littered with old wire and tools, and a heavy layer of dust covered everything.

“What are we doing in here?” Callum asked.

“I realized the alarm was on,” I said. He gave me a look that told me exactly how intelligent he thought I was. “No, I mean, I realized the alarm was on, but the rest of the school didn’t have power. There must be a backup generator just for emergency stuff. I saw this door labeled ‘Electrical’ and assumed it would be here.”

“Not bad man, except I don’t hear a generator down here.”

“Me neither. Wait, listen,” I said and pointed toward my ear as if Callum needed me to show him what to listen with. “Over there, look, I think there’s a door.” I shined the light behind one of the big green boxes and sure enough, the beam danced across a grungy door. And behind it, a low hum droned under the incessant wail of the alarm.

“This has to be it!” I said excitedly. “Wait, before we try and get in here, we need to barricade the other door. The last thing we need is one of those freakin’ chomps breathing down our neck in there. That jimmied bolt won’t exactly hold anything at bay.”

I looked up to see Callum just chuckling and shaking his head. “Like, what are we doing, man? What happened to us?”

“I guess this kind of thing just happens when everything hits the fan,” I laughed with him. It was ridiculous, but I guess we just needed a laugh right then. It reminded me of good times playing cops and robbers as kids, except the stakes were now higher. It had become easy to forget just how high the stakes had risen, if not for days like today. “Help me find something to bar this thing off.”

We searched around the door hoping for something we could wedge, but didn’t have much luck. The odd broom or light bulb certainly wouldn’t do the job. I did find one of those wooden door stops, but the old wedge wouldn’t do much to keep a door shut, unfortunately. I started to get frustrated. My temper rose, partially from not being able to find anything that will work and partially from the incessant, muffled droning of the alarm from beyond the door.

After a few moments of searching, Callum emerged from behind one of the large transformer boxes, displaying a bulky metal ladder. We heaved it up the stairs to the doorway and wedged it up against the doorknob, using one of the rusty handrails as leverage.

“As long as these things don’t give out,” I said, pushing against the brown rusted metal of the handrail, “we should be fine.”

“I hope so,” Callum said, “There’s no takebacks here, man. This is like, perma-death.”

“Don’t remind me,” I said as I descended the stairs. Perma-death was a video game mechanic where death was permanent. No restarting at a save point and no respawning. In short: we were screwed.

I tried the door to the generator, and to my surprise, the handle turned. The first bit of luck.

I found myself in a noisy, cramped closet. The door must have been acoustically treated since it seemed so quiet outside. A large generator with two cans of gas sat right in front me, covered in dust. I wondered how long that fuel had just been sitting there. That it hadn’t turned rancid was nothing short of a miracle. The exhaust from the generator ran through a pipe in the ceiling out of sight.

I examined the white box hoping to find some sort of shut off. The room was pretty small, so Callum just stood outside nervously tapping his foot and holding the flashlight. I warned him to hold the dumb thing still, and he obliged for about a second, but it wasn’t long before he regressed to shaking it again. It drove me crazy, but I kept examining the machine. I felt every crack and crevice until I found a panel to open on the side with a manual shut off switch.

I flipped the breaker.

The room went silent. The droning of the alarm in the hallway died out at as well, leaving Callum and I in a pitch black silence. Then a new sound ignited our fear.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The sound came from the door at the top of the stairs. A rhythmic pounding on the door.

“Oh no,” Cal said in a panicked voice. It was an understatement. He shined the flashlight in my eyes, blinding me.

“What are you doing, man?” I pushed the light away belligerently, hoping with everything in me that the pounding would stop.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

“What do we do, Gray?” Callum’s voice was almost a whimper. I could hear him breathing in short, sharp breaths.

“Easy, buddy,” I said, grabbing his shoulder. “Deep breaths, come on man. Easy does it.”

Thump.

“It’s…out…there…man,” he said in staccato bursts between panicked breath.

Thump.

“I know, but losing your mind right now won’t help that, will it?” I asked him, trying to inject some pep and disarm his stall. “Will it?” I repeated.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

We listened to the threatening percussion on the door, each impact jarring the very blood in my veins. After a few moments, Cal’s breathing started to normalize. His shoulders started to relax and I could sense some pressure releasing in his disposition.

“Good, man. Good,” I offered in an attempt to soothe him. “Okay, we just have to work the problem. What can we do? If this was a game, what would you do?”

“I would turn on god-mode and light this place up.” He grinned from ear to ear.

“Yea, okay, but let’s say you’re going for trophies, so you have to do it legit.”

“I’d look for another way out, I guess. Or maybe a way to distract the chomp.”

“Okay, good, let’s try that,” I agreed. I looked around the room for another passage or something. My high school had a crawlspace. There were a lot of rumors about it, but most people didn’t believe it had really been there. My friends and I snuck in one day and found it, though. We weren’t the first ones, of course. By the time we made it into the cramped concrete tunnels, we found plenty of evidence that other kids had already tarnished almost every square foot with every sort of licentious behavior high schoolers are known for. This high school wasn’t the giving type, it seemed, because there was no crawlspace for us to escape to here.

Thump

I examined the ceiling. Even though the room dropped six or eight feet below the hallway, the ceiling was the same height as the hallway. That made it nearly twenty feet over our heads; a stretch even if we used the ladder that currently held the door shut tight.

“Wait a minute,” I muttered to myself and poked back into the generator closet. “Cal, toss me the light!”

He threw it, and it tumbled awkwardly through the air. With the light flailing off-center,  I fumbled the catch and the light clattered on the cement flooring and rolled under the generator, the light flickering off. The pounding on the door stopped. I held my breath. Everything fell dead silent for what seemed like hours. Cal must have been holding his breath too, because he was quieter than I had ever heard him.

Thump.

The pounding on the door started again, following the same tempo. It was maddening. The beating drove me as I dove to the floor, searching for the stupid flashlight. The darkness in the room was absolute. There were no windows, no lights, no tell-tale LEDs that had seemed a ubiquitous totem to the advancement of technology just months prior. In the sensory depriving darkness, the thumping at the door seemed miles away, and yet so oppressive at the same time.

I felt around the ground under the machine until my cold fingers bounced off of something solid, and the cylinder clattered around under the generator. I managed to grab the dumb thing and pull it out. I twisted the lens and the light flickered back on. I let a deep sigh of relief out.

I traced the pipe coming out of the generator up to the ceiling. The eight-foot ceiling! I had remembered correctly. This room had a drop ceiling for some reason. Probably to hold all of the conduit and cabling that must have been running overhead. I stepped onto the generator and popped one of the ceiling tiles out and looked around. Perfect. A three-foot by two-foot hole gaped right in front of me, leading to the next room.

Thump.

My heart sank as I realized our biggest hurdle. Callum and I would have a hard time getting into the ceiling without the ladder. The ladder that we had pinned the door shut with. I dropped to the floor with an exasperated sigh and started pacing through the electrical equipment looking for anything that could help.

“What is it?” Callum asked. I shined the flashlight on the ladder that vibrated with every impact from the chomp banging on the door. “Yea, but it’s out there and we’re in here,” he said, still confused.

“No, the ladder, you dip,” I snapped. One virtue I had never been accused of having in abundance was patience. “We’ll need the ladder to get out of here.”

He looked from the ladder to the closet and back at me. “Don’t you think we can just wait it out?”

“We have a job to do, and I don’t want to wait for more chomps to come. You know they’re not as dumb as they look.”

Thump. Thump.

As if on cue, second pounding joined the first, sounding like an ominous heartbeat bearing down us.

“Aww man, I don’t like this,” Callum said.

“Well, I’m sure having the time of my life. Help me look, man.”

Callum just groaned. “Man, all I wanted to do was get to Tulsa to see my Dad. He always had an answer, y’know?”

“This isn’t helping. Man up, Cal!” The pounding intensified. I grew tired of being in this stupid cramped closet in this stupid infested school.

“I’ve already looked, Gray! Where do you think I found that ladder? Another one is not just going to magically appear, you know. I’m tired of you treating me like your best friend’s kid brother!”

“Well you are!” I screamed, turning the light on him.

The look on his face said it all. I had messed up. He just stared at me, silent, eyes full of the kind of shame begotten from a lifetime of being belittled. It took me almost a full minute to realize it had been silent in the room. The beating on the door had stopped. Where’d the chomps go? Maybe in our yelling at each other, we had scared them off. I’ve never seen a chomp get scared, but these had been holed up in here for awhile.

As I opened my mouth to speak, a tumult of banging and growling filled the room. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I swore. We had brought an entire army down on us. The door rattled in its hinges, the ladder threatening to bend under the strain.

“Come on Cal, lift me over the wall, I’ll see if there’s something over there that can help me get you up.”

He just looked at me with sad, teary eyes, bolstering my guilt. I had spoken without thinking, just like I always do. He might never forgive me.

“Cal, I promise, I won’t leave you, man. I’ll come back for you. Come on,” I trudged back into the generator closet and stepped onto the generator. I gasped when I heard Cal right behind me; I hadn’t expected him to come so soon. He jumped onto the generator with me and laced his hands together to give me a foothold.

Thump thump thump.

The chomps were giving the door all they had. I had to move fast.

I jumped up into the ceiling with the help of Callum’s boost and hurdled through the hole. I put my hands onto the ceiling on the other side, and the brittle sheetrock broke through. I flipped in mid-air and found myself crashing onto an old table. The dry-rotted particle board creaked and then gave way, dropping me the rest of the way to the floor.

“Are you okay?” Callum asked, more out of obligation than sincerity.

“Yea, I think I’m alright,” I answered. I stood and surveyed the room, dusting of wood chips and sheetrock debris.

“What do you see?”

“It’s an old storage room, I think,” I looked around at old tables and chairs and desks. Everything had at least an inch of dust covering the surface. I spotted another aluminum ladder by the door of the room, but that wouldn’t help Cal get up and through the hole. I had to think of something.

I could still hear the chomps pounding on the door to the other room, through both the hole in the wall and through my door. They could break through at any moment. I decided to rummage through a pile of debris in front of me for something useful.

I felt a stab of pain as I nicked my finger on something sharp under the pile. I stopped digging, but I still heard debris moving around. I looked up—right into the yellow eyes of an emaciated chomper. I fell backward and reached for my shotgun but came up empty-handed. I had left it on the floor in the other room.

As the chomp dove for me, I fumbled with my pistol and managed to shoot the monster in the head as she came down. Bone and flesh splattered my face and my ears rang from the shot, but the chomp fell to the side, dead.

Then, from the other room, I heard Callum scream.