The shards of glass crunched under my feet. Every step made me wince. A loud crunch forced me to freeze in mid step and listen. My heart pounded against the inside of my chest. I looked up and down the deserted hallway. There was no one else walking among the pieces of shattered window, discarded textbooks and other locker contents covering the floor. After several seconds I continued to walk, using the edges of my Pumas to push aside larger pieces before setting my foot down.
I needed to keep my glasses on the tip of my nose to stop the lenses from fogging up. I picked at my cardigan pinching my armpits. I started to scratch but the noise rebounded off the lockers in the corridor. Stupid, they’ll hear you, I thought. I wanted to take it off but I didn’t dare risk the noise that would make. Even the slight fluff of the fabric rubbing my skin might bring unwanted attention.
I passed one of the few remaining hallway mirrors fixed to the wall in between two sections of lockers. It played a cruel trick on me and threw back my reflection. The bags under my eyes had passed below my glasses and were now darker than my rims. Dried up tear tracks from my last break down were still visible, cutting down my greasy cheeks. My hair, which I normally put up in a ponytail, was matted on the top of my head and wispy at the ends across the back of my shoulders. The strands I had been tucking behind my ears were stuck there. The cardigan-over-long-tank-top-with-skinny-Capri-jeans ensemble I had picked out at H&M – the last time I was in the city with my sister – was starting to hang off of me. Either my clothes were stretching from living in them for so long or I was wasting away underneath them. It was probably both. I cursed the mirror under my breath and kept moving.
There was a red hue in the hallway that seemed to seep into the school through the broken windows. It wasn’t a mist that floated above the ground or anything like that. It was a presence in the air, tinting everything, emitting heat. Steam was still wafting from the vents in the ceiling. The air seemed wavy if you stared at something in the distance for long enough.
My stomach let out a loud gurgle. I wrapped my arms around my midsection, managing to stifle a second one. I flexed my arms to squeeze my belly. It protested like some screeching woman whose mouth was being covered by a giant hand. The third gurgle wasn’t a gurgle at all, just cramps. Cramps were good; they didn’t make noise. I waited a little to make sure my stomach was calm before continuing.
I approached the T-junction at the end of the hallway that led to the woodshop and mechanics classes on the left and to the arts and crafts rooms on the right. What should’ve taken me seconds to reach ended up taking me 20 minutes. I know because I kept looking at my watch. They’ll think I left them, I kept worrying. Sweeping glass aside and stepping carefully was delaying my trek.
By this point, the abandoned lockers and broken windows were behind me. In front of me were three steps leading down to the junction. There was less glass and debris on the floor which allowed me to move faster. I hugged the wall as hard as I could to make myself as flat as possible. I pressed my face against the concrete until the bridge on my glasses cut into the fleshy part of my nose.
I inched towards the T-junction, sliding against the wall. Before I reached the corner, the distant laugh of a boy echoed down the hallway. I stopped and looked back towards the direction I came from. The red tainted passage covered in the remains of teenage belongings was still deserted. Everything looked like it was trembling. I strained my eyes to see if I could detect movement at the other end, which was where the Principal’s office was.
Never before in my three years at Citadel High did I want to see that pig-headed Mr. Anders. We butted heads over the way I ran the school newspaper. But in that moment, I would’ve given my left arm to see him walking down the hallway, stepping on the glass and books like it was ok to make noise, telling me help was on the way.
I tried to control my breathing to slow my heart rate. Its rapid beating was making it hard to listen if someone was there. But there was no one.
Sad that there was no teacher coming, I turned my face back to the wall and continued shimmying to the T-junction. I stopped at the edge and peeked around the corner towards the woodshop and mechanic class rooms. There, at the very end of the hallway, face down on the floor in front of the exit doors leading out to McConnell avenue – or what was once McConnell avenue – was the thing I was after, the object that would help stop the gurgling in my stomach…for a while. I didn’t know how I was going to turn it over to get at the sweet and salty snacks inside. Most of the school’s vending machines had tipped forward. Some had fallen sideways, spilling their guts on the floor and allowing students to snatch what they could. But like a lot of them, the machine I was eyeing was face down.
I came away from the wall, leaving a wet imprint of my body. I stood in the middle of the T-junction, staring at the snack machine. I put my hands on my hips. How the hell am I going to get at the food inside? I thought. I left my group with the promise that I would bring back as much as I could carry.
‘Shit,’ I whispered, looking up at the ceiling and shaking my head. ‘I forgot the book bag.’
Owen warned me before leaving the safety of the music room that going after this machine was stupid. I had just proved that skinny first-year right by not bringing something to carry the snacks. It would have been useful if my oaf of a cousin, Seb, was with me. He would have forgotten the bag too but at least he had massive arms to carry a large load, even flip the machine on its side. But he wasn’t with me, or with the group. He was in between groups. He really wanted to be with Dom’s gang, the boys running the school. However, he was having a hard time fitting in. Even at the end of the world all he wanted was to run with the tough kids.
I felt a tingle on the back of my neck. The sensation reminded me of the boys that purposefully stood right up against me on days when it was standing room only on the bus. But there was no one behind me, touching me, just the urge to turn around. I did so and looked down the hallway towards the arts and crafts rooms. Standing in front of the exit doors was Martin. His arms were straight at his sides, his fists were clenched. He was staring through the doors’ broken windows. I wanted to whisper his name to get his attention but I didn’t.
I glided up the right side of the hallway towards the totem pole teen, staying close to the wall. Martin looked like a sculpture someone had placed at the exit to be collected; a prop on loan from another school waiting to be returned.
He remained rock steady as I got closer to him. We were the same age. His family had moved to town when I was in grade 6. It didn’t take him long to blend in at St. Gabriel’s Elementary and his transition to high school was rather smooth. He was well liked, smart and funny. I think he was aiming for the ‘Class Clown’ label for our yearbook and he was on the right track to getting it.
This was the first time I had seen Martin in a few weeks. Lord knew where he was hiding out.
‘Martin?’ I whispered. Stepping away from the wall and stopping just behind him. My eyes came up to his right shoulder. ‘Are you ok?’
Not one inch of his body twitched. Not one inch of fabric of what he was wearing fluttered.
‘Martin,’ I whispered again. ‘What’s wrong?’ My voice was shaky. Still no response. The pounding in my chest was back. I had a sudden flash in my head of Martin turning to look at me but instead of his face it was just bloody, mangled flesh clinging to parts of a charcoaled skull. I forced my eyes shut and shook my head. The inside of my ears were pulsating. Stop scaring yourself, you idiot, I thought. You’re not going to get to be a writer anymore so get a grip on your stupid imagination.
I slowly opened my eyes and moved around Martin’s body to get to his front. I clinched my fists and held my breath. I delayed seeing his face as much as possible. When I reached his front I was relieved to see that Martin was untouched. Being a whole head taller I had to look up to take in his appearance. He didn’t have a scratch. Not one scar, bruise, smudge, or sweat strand. His hair was a little disheveled, but whose hair wasn’t after starving, sleeping on floors and hiding in corners. Despite this he was his handsome self. The only thing missing was the life in his eyes. It looked like his baby blues had turned into an ash grey.
‘Martin,’ I called out. Whispering was not getting his attention.
His eyes shifted down to look at me. His head followed. The joints in his neck popped like a toddler stepping on bubble wrap. His once blue beauties connected with my once green gems – I imaged the life in my eyes had leaked out too at some point.
‘It’s me, Amanda.’
‘You shouldn’t be out here.’
‘I know that. Neither should you. What’s happened?’ I was annoyed at how shaky my voice was. It was like I was in front of a class presenting my homework.
He looked away from me and back through the doors’ broken windows. I was bombarding him with questions – the journalist inside me refusing to die I guess.
‘What are we waiting for?’ he finally said. I took this as a rhetorical question and didn’t answer him.
‘Come on, Martin. Let’s get out of the hallway before someone sees us.’
I wrapped my fingers around his wrist and pulled his arm towards me. He jerked it away and stepped back.
‘And go where?’ he asked in a louder voice. I brought my index finger to my lips. ‘What’s the point? If the hunger doesn’t fold us in half then they will. Why put up with it when you can make it all stop just by stepping outside?’
I started to back away from Martin. He was cradling his stomach. I was too focused on his dead eyes at first to realize that a section of his shirt was tainted red.
‘Martin, are you hurt? Was it Dom?’
‘It was all of them. They’re all like him now. And they’re all that’s left. Them and us.’
Martin dropped his arm to his side and looked back outside. I got a better look at his midsection. It was covered in a dark, red sauce. Suddenly he pushed past me and walked through the exit doors.
‘Martin, what are you doing?’ I was becoming less concerned with the volume of my voice.
‘You should come out here. It’s nice to be out after being cooped up inside.’ His back was to me. I couldn’t see his face but it sounded like he was smiling. Even though he was outside he was not beyond the building. He was under the portico but he was at the edge. He pulled his shoulders back and tilted his face upwards. I heard him breathe in. He seemed to enjoy filling his lungs with the choking air of a scorched city. I could barely keep myself from falling into a coughing fit by standing so close to the outside world.
‘Please come inside,’ I pleaded. The fact that Martin was out there meant there was no convincing him to come back in. ‘Don’t do this,’ I persisted anyway.
‘It’s the best way,’ Martin responded. ‘Inside, there’s nothing but rot. Out here,’ he took a deep breath, ‘there’s instant relief.’
‘Martin, please. Owen and I are hiding out in the music room with some others. It’s safe. I promise you we’ll get some food. When they see that the school is still standing they’ll come looking for survivors. We just need to be patient.’ I couldn’t tell him who they were, if anyone was left out there. But I had to cling to something; hope of rescue was dim but still possible.
I noticed I had moved an inch closer to the doors. I backed away. My chest was rising and falling a little faster now. Martin and I got along quite well in ordinary life. We were partnered one time on a creative writing project for Mrs. Mattes’s English class. We had known each other for a few years but that was the first time I depended on him for a grade. He impressed me. We had aced the project. The time we spent over milkshakes in the mall hunched over my MacBook was fun.
‘Martin, everything will be ok. Please turn around and look at me.’ The position my cheeks took to mouth the word ‘ok’ helped me realize that fresh tears were trailing down to my jaw line.
‘It’s ok,’ Martin replied. ‘You just have to close your eyes and step out.’
He took four steps forward, moving out from underneath the portico. He wasn’t exposed for too long before he was vaporized by a flash of light and heat that was followed by a crashing sound that shook the ground. The pillar of fire I had seen come down several times before fell through the thick, red clouds right on top of Martin.
‘NOOOOOO!’ My concern for silence vanished with my friend. Not that my voice could compete against the pillar’s pounding roar. It hit the ground with a force that sent a shockwave right through me; had the door’s windows not been already broken my face would have been shredded. I was thrown back a few feet with the rush of heat. My butt hit the floor and I slid along the linoleum for another three feet. The roar and the heat disappeared when I stopped sliding. I stayed on the floor, curled up.
Copyright Eric Poirier 2014