Have you ever really seen a mountain full of human bodies on fire? Have you ever just sat there and watched the skin turn black, sizzle, and burn? It’s truly a sickening experience...but there’s a morbid fascination to it that keeps you from looking away from it. Even with Preston laying his head on my shoulder, watching the horror of the routine and its dark precision as it became more and more common to bear witness to it...I couldn’t help but to be infected by the sight of it all. It actually was beginning to take a certain level of focus for me to remember that those stiff, lifeless, ‘logs’ being added to the heap were actually living, breathing, people at one time. Some of them...as recent as an hour or two ago.
People with hopes, with dreams, with fears, and a natural instinct to want to survive at all costs. And now? Now they’re just brightly lit corpses...keeping the flames burning.
They settle, you know? The heaps of bodies, I mean. As the charred skin and fat turns to ash...the corpses lose the balance that they had before. Sometimes it’s just an arm or a leg that shifts and the heap gets a bit smaller as everything deteriorates and begins to fall apart. But other times...it’s more than that. A whole chunk of the bodies might turn into a level of ash that can’t support the weight of the bodies on top of them...and that causes them to slide to the side, the entire mountain falling with and burnt corpses rolling down on one side or the other. The soldiers in the protective suits would have to jump backwards to keep the top of the mound from falling on top of them, the darkness set ablaze with random sparks and burnt cinders sent floating up into the smoky air above them.
It happens quite often, actually. And the only thing that distracted me from the nightmarish beauty of it all was having Preston occasionally twitch or whimper softly at my side. It was almost like watching a puppy have a dream of running through a brightly lit field of high grass. I didn’t want to wake him. The poor kid was so mentally and emotionally exhausted at this point that I was actually shocked that he was able to put a smile on his face and keep up such an optimistic presence in the rest of our little family’s lives. Even though I knew that he was worried and hurting inside...I found his adorable antics so refreshing. It helps to keep those pesky negative thoughts at bay.
So I just gave his soft, dark brown, hair a few comforting strokes...and he calmed down almost immediately, drifting right back off to sleep. It did make me feel good to care for him this way, but when I looked back over my shoulder to see some of the soldiers practically marching down the hallway with a smaller group of rescued civilians between them, my curiosity was overwhelmed with the need to figure out what was going on.
“Mmmmnnngh….unghhh...” Preston wiggled and whimpered a bit more from my movements, but I was finally able to turn him around and lean him up against the wall just beneath the windows. Preston’s arms wrapped themselves around my waist to cling to me for a bit longer, but a few more strokes of his hair got him to relax again. I got up, grabbed a pillow from my pallet, and I laid it on the floor beside him, gently leaning him over and allowed him to snuggle in and get comfortable again. I probably should have given him a blanket or something too...but I didn’t plan to be gone for that long. So that will have to do for now. The darkness of the room with the dim flicker of the burning bodies off in the distance. But he was looking soooo peaceful and sweet at that moment. I just stared at him for a moment, and I felt some of the peace that his sleeping baby face radiated from deep within him. It was comforting. It really was.
Once I made sure that he was ok, I got up to see what was going on by walking out into the hallway. I guess they had moved all of the desks out of another classroom to try to free up some space for our new visitors. Geez, I’m not sure why they took so long to get them through quarantine and all, but the military seemed to be extremely ‘thorough’ when it came to checking them in. And even then, I only counted about fifteen people...give or take a few. Which means that they were only releasing them into the general public a few at a time. Which just seemed weird to me.
I mean, the military has been super careful with anybody new that came into this place...but this seemed to be pretty excessive, even by their strict standards. I made sure to hang back a little bit from their group to keep it from being too obvious that I was following them, not that they didn’t know I was there. Besides, they didn’t seem to care too much. A lot of the soldiers working this kind of detail were Privates and barely more than a few years older than I was anyway. But, more than that, it wasn’t a hefty assignment. Everybody was carrying a sleeping bag, a thin cushion for the floor, and a blanket under their arms. Half of them had pillows, but some only had their backpacks or quickly thrown together clothes and stuff shoved into a sack. I guess that was all they had time to grab during their mad dash out of the way of the chaos outside. But one of the things that I noticed more than anything from this new group was the shared look on their faces. It was...different.
It was the kind of blank and distant stare that I saw on the face of the lady in the red blanket when she first got here. Whoever these people are...they’ve definitely seen some serious shit while they were out there. They were in the thick of it, they had to fight for their lives...and probably lost a few people they truly cared about along the way. People who ended up being just another lifeless log, on another flaming heap of bodies, in another open space somewhere. I could see it in their eyes. They were all trembling without trembling...if that makes any sense.
I was hoping to see a familiar face among them. Maybe someone that I could recognize from the area...who lived close enough to this place or to downtown Chicago and might have some idea of what’s going on out there. That might even have a clue as to where my parents were being sheltered, and if they were still ok. But I didn’t see anyone who looked even remotely familiar. I doubt that I would have recognized them if I did. This new world of horror and trauma had been dropped down on all of us so fast that I imagine none of us look like our former selves anymore.
But there was this one boy...
...Slim, but a bit taller than me, with dark hair that was almost black, and brown eyes that were swollen with emotion and fatigue. He was maybe a year or two older than me, almost Donovan’s age, but not quite. He looked right back at me, no expression on his face...but he nodded in my direction. It sort of caught me off guard, seeing as I was pretty much invisible to the rest of the group up to that point.
I softly nodded back, and he almost gave me a little smirk in response.
“Hey...get back to the cafeteria. Go on.” One of the soldiers said to me. “Let us do our job here.”
I didn’t really have much practice when it came to disobeying authority. Brainwashed habit, I suppose. So I connected eyes with the dark haired boy again, briefly, and then turned away from the room to let them get everything all set up in there. I don’t know if I could explain what it was that gave me goosebumps...and, no, it has nothing to do with him being cute, I swear...but there was something about him that spoke volumes to me without him even saying a word. A deep, dark, sadness. But one that he was doing his best to overcome, despite the odds. I automatically feel a certain kinship with other people when it came to stuff like that. Always did. It just reminds me of myself, spending years in the closet all alone, wondering why I was so messed up. Why God chose me to go through it. Just trying to understand how to find my true self, and then figure out what I was supposed to do with that knowledge once I found it.
I don’t know...something about the tortured look in his eyes...and the somewhat casual smile that followed it, as if to hide his inner turmoil from me...it just reminded me of that. And it felt like ‘home’.
I was walking down the hallway, back to the cafeteria, when I heard the squeak of some sneakers moving quickly to catch up to me. “Hey! Hey wait a second!” I turned to see the same boy following behind me, and I held back a slight gasp as I didn’t prepare myself for any kind of casual conversation at that point. “Have you...been here for a while?” He asked.
“I...yeah. I’ve...wait, like...how do you mean?”
“In this shelter. This high school. How long have you been here?”
I thought it an odd question, but I told him, “Always. Well, not always, but I went to school here. I don’t live that far away, so...”
The boy looked back over his shoulder to see some of the soldiers watching us, and probably trying to hear what we were saying. “Ok. Cool. Walk with me for a minute, will you?” And he put an arm on my shoulder to turn me away from the soldiers and lightly pushed me to start walking down the hall with him at my side. What, exactly, was all of this about?
“Do you know me, or is this just some kind of…?”
He was quick to shut me up. “Shhh, shhh, shhh...we need to get out of sight.” The boy said. “Do you know of a place where we can talk?”
“We can go back to the cafeteria. That’s where everybody goes to stay once they pass quarantine. It’s getting to be a little crowded now, but if you want me to make some room for you...”
“No no no...a place where we can talk. You know, like in private.” He said in a strained whisper, still looking over his shoulder and watching to see who might be eavesdropping on our conversation. If you can even call it a conversation.
“Well, it’s sunrise, so I guess the kitchen is getting stuff ready for breakfast, and the military usually have their own rations stashed away on the East end somewhere...so...maybe the staircases might be empty for a little while. I think. I can never tell for sure.”
“It’ll have to do. At least for now. Show me where, k?”
He seemed sort of urgent about the whole thing and it made me uneasy, but the way his hand was clutching my shoulder while he continued to nervously look around at any and everybody else in that hallway, speeding up my pace with his own, I think I found myself becoming increasingly curious about what was going on here. So I led him to one of the nearby staircases, and peeked around to make sure that nobody saw me open the door so both of us could quickly duck inside and go halfway up to the next floor to stay out of view.
The other boy listened for any kind of noises or whispers that might be echoing throughout the area, and then leaned over the railing to double check the floor below us, as well as the levels above us, before he was able to breathe easy again. “Ok...it looks like we’re clear.” He whispered.
“Do you mind telling me what…?”
“SHHH!!!” He said, covering my mouth with his hand. I’m not exactly sure what had him so freaked out, but he was physically trembling just from being able to stand still for a few moments. I could practically see his heart beating right through his shirt. “Ok, look...let’s just get this out of the way, ok?”
“Get WHAT out of the way?” I whispered back at him.
“Do you have a fever? Any chills or cold sweats?”
“Any blackouts? Brain fog?”
“Brain fog! You know, like...staring off into space? Finding it hard to concentrate or focus?” He asked, staring directly into my eyes as if he were looking for some kind of tell tale sign. “Any lapses in memory?”
“No. None of that. Look, what is this all about?”
It took him a few deep breaths, but the boy finally leaned back against the wall and he released a sigh of relief. “You seem to be one of the safe ones...at least for now. But don’t take it personally if I find myself needing to keep my distance from you if things change.” He said. “If you so much as sneeze in my direction, I’ll turn you over to the soldiers. You get me?”
“Jesus...” I said, and he seemed to walk back a bit on his last comment.
“Sorry. It’s just...this isn’t the time to be making friends. My ‘trust’ bank is pretty much empty at this point.” Sliding down the wall, he put his knees up to rest his elbows on top of them. “So...you went to school here?”
“Yeah. I did.” I said.
“Good. I’m going to need you to tell me all of the good places to hide when the emergencies begin to pop off. And if you’ve got a somewhat decent escape route to get out of this place, you’d be helping me out by letting me know that too. I don’t know how much time we’ve got.”
I gave him a bit of strange look as he closed his eyes and ran his fingers through the dark locks of his hair. He just looked soooo tired...but he was too on edge to allow his defenses to settle down long enough for him to rest.
Trying to set his mind at ease, I said, “I don’t think you’re going to have too much to worry about around here. We’re actually pretty well protected in this place. And they’re keeping a close eye on everything around the clock, fences and all.”
“Is that a fact…?” He groaned without raising his head or opening his eyes. A heavy dose of sarcasm woven into his tone.
“Listen, I know what you’re thinking, and things look pretty grim out there right now...but we’ve got protection here. K? We’ve got food, water, showers, weapons...from everything I’ve seen so far, we should be safe here.” I said. “We could hold off an entire army of those things if we had to.”
“It won’t matter.” He said, his voice shaking a bit. “What you consider ‘safe’ is just a ticking time bomb counting down to the ultimate end of this place and everybody inside it. Do yourself a favor, kid...if you want to survive this, you learn to look for the signs ahead of time and get as far away from other people as you possibly can. Because this so-called shelter isn’t going to last.”
What the hell had he been through before now? “I’m Jake.” I said, trying to change the subject before he got me feeling all weird and paranoid too.
“Sonny.” He replied, finally looking back up from his folded arms.
“Ok...ummm...so you were in the truck with the last batch of survivors, right? Did you come here from the city?”
“The city is gone. Just...gone.” He told me. “I was barricaded into another shelter, a lot like this one. Everything went to shit, pretty much without warning. A lot of people died. A LOT. I barely made it out of there myself.” With that same blank stare in his eyes that I noticed earlier, Sonny gazed up at the flickering light above us. “Have you ever tried to run through puddles of blood on a tile floor, Jake? It’s slippery. So very slippery. You can’t get a foothold...no traction. And when those things come after you...it’s practically impossible to get away. You just keep sliding. Fighting your way through it until you almost don’t have any energy left to keep going...” A single tear ran down his cheek as he cringed from the memory. “...I was lucky enough to get saved at the last minute by some of the others who were driving those trucks, and decided to help as many people as they could to escape the carnage. But by the time they got there...Hillside was pretty much a total wash out.”
“Hillside?” I said. “You’re from Hillside? Hillside High School?”
“Omigod...I’ve only heard rumors about everything that went down in that place.”
“They’re probably true. But even if they weren’t, there aren’t a whole lot of survivors left to speak on it.” Suddenly, Sonny jumped, and he shut his eyes tight as he hugged his knees with both arms and began to shiver uncontrollably. “Did you hear that??? What was that noise?”
“I didn’t hear anything.” I said.
“No! No, I think I heard something!” He insisted. “Did something open the door down below us? Or...or maybe above us? How often do they patrol these staircases during the morning hours?”
I gave Sonny a moment to collect himself, not saying a word...but then I moved over to sit right next to him against that wall and did what little I could to comfort his troubled mind. We’re all dealing with our own sense of trauma, after all.
“I didn’t hear anybody open anything. We’re ok. We’re safe in here. Seriously.”
“We’re not safe anywhere, don’t you get it? Whatever this virus is...it doesn’t work like that. Trust me...I know.” He said.
“Look, I’ve met some pretty cool people since I’ve been here, and we’ve become like a family when it comes to getting through this together. If you want, we can get together for a while and just...”
“No.” He said, closing his eyes again and pressing his forehead against his knees as he curled up into a tighter ball than the one he was in before.
“I can’t, Jake.” Sonny said. “Look, I don’t feel like being around a lot of other people right now. But...if you don’t mind...I don’t think I can stand being alone either. I just...can we just talk for a little bit? I was all by myself for a long period of time, but I can’t trust large groups of people just yet. They’re not safe. None of us...are safe.”
I agreed to sit and keep him company for a while, even though my stomach was already rumbling in preparation for the promise of a somewhat decent breakfast. But this ‘Sonny’ boy looked like he needed a friend. And to be honest, if I could get him to loosen up a little bit, I’d like to hear more about what happened at Hillside High...and why he’s so convinced that my high school is inevitably heading towards the same slaughter and tragedy that he’s already been through.
Talk to me, Sonny. Tell me what you know...
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