In the coat area before the music room, I collapsed onto the floor and curled up into a ball along the wall. We kept the lights off in that part of the room so I felt I could let myself break down without being seen by the others. Every sensation was back. Contracting stomach. Pounding chest. Pulsating eyes and inner ears. Throbbing skull. Even my teeth felt like they were about to shoot out of my gums one at a time. More tears were streaming from behind my glasses, pooling on the floor next to my temple. I was amazed that there was still enough fluid left in my body to let me cry so much.
Get food and the first aid kit, Jane’s voice said in my head. It’ll make everything better. You need to eat proper food. Get up. Fight.
But I stayed curled up on the floor.
‘Amanda?’ It was Thomas. ‘Are you in there?’ He was standing in the doorway to the music room and looking into the coat area. He couldn’t see me on the floor.
‘I’m here,’ I sniffed. I sat up and looked away from him to secretly wipe my eyes. ‘I was napping.’
‘You were napping? How can you sleep?’
‘I mean I’m trying to nap. I’m so tired.’ I stood up and faced him, satisfied that I had gotten all of my tears.
‘We’re all tired but we need to go to the cafeteria now. We’ve waited too long. I just diarrheaed in there again and now I’m getting dizzy spells. Catherine’s not doing too well anymore now. And I don’t even know what we’re going to do about Shaun.’
‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘I’ll go to The Tower. Meet me by the cafeteria in twenty minutes.’
Sometime after, I was in The Tower, the office for the high school newspaper, looking for things to trade for food.
The day the world ended I came into The Tower and tidied up. I think I was on auto pilot from shock. I had been wandering the hallways like everyone else trying to register what had happened. I felt like being productive, like trying to re-establish normalcy.
Since we still had power to the building (for reasons no one could explain, not even the geeky science kids among us) I returned my desk and laptop to its former standing glory and actually wrote an article. It was pretty unstructured. It read like a blog actually, one that I couldn’t post anywhere because there was no Internet connection. There was nothing left to connect to anyway. I used the headline ‘There’s Nothing Left’. My brain vomited words through my fingers, putting down what my eyes had registered during the first few hours.
I can definitely barter with the laptop, I thought.
The school’s camera was also something that could certainly get us food. I hoped it was still working. It was locked in the filing cabinet. But I had forgotten the keys for it at home the day of the event.
I was going to need a crowbar to open the cabinet and get to the camera, if it was still working that is. Everything was face down on the floor when I entered the office the first time. It was easy enough to put everything upright but I heard a lot of things bang and rattle inside the cabinet when I picked it up. The only place that had tools was in the woodshop, and I wasn’t ready to venture back to that corridor any time soon; even if there was a Snickers bar lying on the floor.
But I was going to have to get in there eventually because my second pair of glasses was inside as well. I knew they weren’t broken because I had left them in their hard case. At least I hoped. They were my only backup if the lenses currently on my face cracked.
Maybe I can start with the laptop and come back for the camera if it’s not enough, I thought. We needed to get to the cafeteria soon to get food. Too much time had been wasted. The effects of isolation and borderline starvation were starting to affect the group. Shaun, Thomas and Catherine needed some type of medical attention. At least some attempt at getting medical attention, even if it was in the form of cheap bandages, over the counter pain killers and some rubbing alcohol. The only thing that might help Thomas was the anti-nausea pills. And all that was if the kit wasn’t already pillaged.
I walked over to the laptop, slammed the lid down and yanked the power cord from the wall, nearly ripping the outlet away with the plug. The damn thing never liked me anyway. It never worked properly. It often froze or crashed on me or wouldn’t connect to the Internet right when I needed to post an article.
There wasn’t much sorrow for using it as a bargaining chip with heathens that were probably going to break it over someone’s head for fun. Besides, my own MacBook was locked away safely in the cabinet with the camera. That was my baby. Hopefully it wasn’t broken. My itch to write something could still be satisfied, even if my last piece was a downer (‘There’s Nothing Left!’).
I was wrapping the power cord around the laptop when a loud thud above my head nearly made me drop the machine. The room shook and pieces of ceiling crashed to the floor. I stared up at the modular tiles until they looked orange. The red hanging in the air mixed with the pale white color of each cheap panel looking down at me.
The sound made me think of the day Ryan Reed was dancing on his desk right before class. Mr. Wells hadn’t entered the classroom yet and Ryan wanted to show off his Justin Timberlake moves. Only problem was he was a heavy-set kid of the fat asshole variety. He lost his balance and went crashing to the floor. The entire room trembled and his body connecting with the linoleum emitted a deep thud that was probably heard by students one floor down and at the other end of the school.
I immediately dismissed the thought of someone falling on the ceiling right above me. The Tower office was on the second floor. What was above me was the outside world. The noise, the trembling was too weak for a fire pillar. If it was a person they had seconds to live. But the typical rapture of death from the clouds didn’t follow.
Then it hit me. Even if it was a person (maybe a rescuer jumping out of a helicopter), who was being spared from fire falling on his head, I shouldn’t have been able to hear such a thud from where I was. There was a layer of concrete between me and the roof. Whatever it was, it didn’t repeat. There was only one thud.
I stood in the middle of the office listening and staring for what felt like an hour. White blindness was closing in from my peripheral vision. Maybe it was my mind playing tricks on me again. How do you explain the pieces of broken ceiling tile on the ground then, eh missy? I was scared that I was reaching a point of post-traumatic stress that was causing me to see and hear things that weren’t there.
My heart rate started increasing again. I stopped myself from over thinking in order to keep it down and continued to wrap the power cord around the laptop. I was determined to get food. I know I heard something, but I was already forgetting what the noise sounded like.
The plan was for me to grab some equipment from The Tower and meet Thomas, Marissa and Elena inside the waiting area of the Principal’s office, which was out of sight from the corridor but just around the corner from the lion’s den – the cafeteria where Dom had staked his claim so soon after the event.
I had a slight fear they weren’t going to be there and I would have to go in alone.
In order to reach the office I had to pass by the access corridor leading to the cafeteria. There were more skinny students milling about in front of the doors compared to the last time I walked past. Starvation was bringing more and more hungry teens out of their hiding spots in search of food. I didn’t want to think about what some would do in desperation in order to eat. I was hoping that some of the survivors hadn’t reached that stage.
The waiting area in front of the Principal’s office was deserted. Thomas, Marissa and Elena were nowhere in sight. They didn’t come, I thought. I was going to have to go in alone.
A crashing noise in the Principal’s office made me freeze and bear-hug my laptop. If the machine had been a baby doll, its head would’ve popped off and rolled out into the hallway.
It was a cough, followed by a shushing. Someone was hiding from me. Or waiting to jump out. The fact that no one came rushing out of the office after me while I waited led me to believe it was the former.
I advanced carefully, stepping in between all the debris on the floor like before. The laptop was still clinched to my chest. My heart started pounding again against the hard plastic lid. I stopped inside the doorframe, poked my head into the office and peered to the right. Greasy, wavy blonde hair atop a wrinkly white blouse was the first thing I saw. It was the back of Elena’s head. She was backed up against the wall and looking at Thomas to her right who was looking at his feet. They were standing on a pile of furniture and having a hard time keeping their balance.
‘Quiet,’ Elena whispered. ‘Someone will hear us.’ She looked down at her own feet that were slipping off of a dented filing cabinet. When she did, she must’ve caught me out of the corner of her eye because her head snapped in my direction. She let out a shriek and jumped back into Thomas, making him stumble down the furniture pile. It wasn’t until he moved away from the wall that I noticed Marissa also pressed up against it.
‘Holy hell, Amanda,’ Thomas shouted, after regaining his footing in the center of the office. ‘You almost made me shit my pants.’
‘Nice,’ I replied. I was so happy to see them.
‘What took you so long?’ Elena asked, coming away from the wall and down from the pile. Marissa didn’t move.
‘It took time to look around the room because it’s a mess like all rooms in this building,’ which was a lie. I had picked up most of the stuff but I didn’t want anyone to know it was a clean place to lay low. If the music room got discovered, we could move there. So I wanted to keep it a secret for the time being. Or maybe I wanted to have a place to myself, where I could cry in private.
‘What d’ya get?’ Thomas asked, moving right up against me. I had to take a step back. The item in my hands meant the possibility of food. His stomach was taking over. ‘Just a laptop? I thought you said there was a camera? What good’s a laptop in here?’
‘It still works. You can still use the apps on it. There’s some games. The webcam on it still works. I’m sure one of them will find use for it.’
‘This isn’t going to work,’ Thomas said. He turned away from me and closer to his sister, Marissa, who was still standing on the pile against the wall. He let his head hang down and started rubbing his temples with his index fingers. When he reached the other end of the office he spun on his heels and looked at me with a furrowed brow. ‘These aren’t the guys who signed up for typing class this year, Amanda. They’re the type that skip lessons to toss the football around before roaming the neighbourhood to beat up on anything smaller than them.’
‘What, are you stupid?’ Elena asked me. She was starting to act like Jeanne-Marie, probably growing more frustrated from a lack of proper nourishment. I really didn’t need another bitch in the group.
‘Calm down, both of you,’ I said. ‘I haven’t ruled out using the camera. I just don’t want to give everything away at once. They might just take it and not give us anything. We should spread out our resources.’
‘Spread out our resources?’ Thomas scoffed. ‘You’re planning for the long haul, aren’t you? Ah, what does it matter? The food’s probably all gone already. Dom and his goons aren’t exactly long-term planners.’
‘If that’s the case then we’re all screwed,’ I said, ‘and I’ll keep my camera, thank you very much.’
The four of us stood at one end of the cafeteria corridor looking down to the other where hungry, raggedy looking students were gathered in front of the doors. We needed to push past them in order to get in. I clutched my laptop a little tighter and started to move forward. I was five steps ahead before Thomas, Elena and Marissa followed.
The corridor seemed to narrow as I drew nearer. The students looked like hovering fruit flies contemplating going after a rotting banana that was left on the counter.
At the half way point, some of the fruit flies stopped buzzing about when they noticed us. One of the A-students from my chemistry class, Daniel, locked onto my laptop with his bug eyes. He bee lined straight for me before I was ten steps from the cafeteria doors.
‘You come here to trade? You got something? Can I come in with you? Where are have you guys been staying?’ His rapid questions were buzzing in my ear. He was glued to me for the last ten steps to the door; the first fruit fly attempting to land on the black banana.
‘I don’t think I’ll be able to get much,’ I said, tightening my grip on the computer and pressing the edge of it against my chin. I didn’t want to add to his despair. The group wasn’t going to share whatever little food we might get. But I couldn’t tell him that.
‘Back off, kid,’ Thomas said from behind me. His hand appeared and pulled Daniel away from my sight. ‘We don’t have enough to go around. Go find your own shit to trade with.’ I was relieved that I didn’t have to tell the truth myself. The other flies – two girls from my psychology class and another from my English class backed away from us, never taking their eyes off of the laptop, as if that was the thing they wanted to eat. I pictured what would happen when the food ran out: survivors fighting over gym mats, paper, clothes…each other.
I was one step away from the double doors to the cafeteria. I was intimidated by the silence on the other side. Normally I could hear the boys laughing and cheering from the other end of the corridor but today there was nothing. Only the sound of Thomas shooing Daniel away: ‘Get. Go on.’
My mind was racing and I couldn’t help thinking that this was the moment before a sneak attack. The sound of rushing water inside my head was coming back.
I raised my fist to knock. The cafeteria doors tore open inwards before I could. A rush of warm, stale red air invaded my orifices. It smelt like the boys locker room after a track run and before the runners jump into the showers. One of my first articles for The Tower before I took over as Chief Editor was to interview the captain of the Citadel High track team. We talked just outside the locker room as the team streamed past us and in. I cut the interview short by five questions because I couldn’t stand the stench. It wasn’t long after I took over the school newspaper and decided on the stories, taking place far away from any sweating teenage boys. When the cafeteria opened to me, I was catapulted back to that day by the locker rooms. My stomach turned. I fought back the urge to puke.
Two figures emerged and stood in the entrance before me. One of them was my friendly neighbourhood wannabe rapist, Kieran. The other was another goon in Dom’s squad, who I hadn’t seen since the event, Mike.
‘Get lost,’ Thomas shouted from behind me, still pushing Daniel away.
‘Hey,’ Mike yelled over me, ‘we say who gets lost around her.’ I heard Thomas’s heels snap to attention, could almost feel the sensation of them slamming together on the back of my knees.
‘Get lost you little prick,’ Mike said, brushing past me. ‘If you come here again with nothing to trade we will bring you inside and it won’t be to get food. You hear me?’
‘But I can’t find anything,’ Daniel pleaded. ‘I’m having a hard time seeing. This heat is getting to me and my vision is more and more blurry.’
‘That sounds like a you problem,’ I heard Mike say. His voice was drawing away, probably because he was shoving Daniel down the corridor. A loud smacking sound reverberated off of the walls, followed by yelp then a whimper.
‘Well if it isn’t my favourite girl,’ Kieran said, stepping out of the cafeteria and right up to me. ‘Finally come for our sausages, eh? What ya got there?’
‘We want to trade,’ Thomas said.
‘I wasn’t talking to you retard,’ Kieran said, shooting his gaze behind me.
‘We’ve come to trade for food,’ I said. ‘I brought a laptop. It still works.’
‘What the hell are we going to do with a laptop?’ Mike said, taking his place next to Kieran. ‘Homework? You must be geeking it if you’re writing a paper during the apocalypse. Yo, school’s out bitch.’
‘Manners, Mike.’ I cracked a smile at Kieran saying this. I couldn’t help myself.
‘What’s so funny sweat mounds?’
‘It’s just that,’ (Shut up you idiot) ‘I seem to remember Dom giving you a lesson in manners the last time we met. You must’ve learned your lesson if you’re teaching others already.’ You goddamn idiot.
‘You so funny,’ Kieran said. He ripped the laptop from my grip and held it above his head.
‘No,’ Thomas, Elena and I shouted. I felt them lunge forward slightly; a knee-jerk reaction to the fear of going another day without eating.
‘Shut your mouth, Amanda,’ Thomas growled. I could tell he was talking through clinched teeth.
‘That’s right,’ Kieran said. ‘Shut your trap. It’s ruining your other assets. You know, I could smash this thing right now and you’d still have something to trade with.’ He leaned towards me and slowly licked his lips.
‘Let them in shithead,’ a deep voice said from within the cafeteria. It rumbled into the corridor like a roar from the lion’s den. The male of the pride had spoken.
Kieran let his arm holding the laptop fall fast to his side. I braced myself for the sound of breaking hardware rattling all over the floor. But Kieran had a good grip on the machine. He looked inside the cafeteria for a couple of seconds then shoved the laptop against my chest, taking the opportunity the press his knuckles into both breasts. He looked deep inside my eyes while breathing hard through his nose. I had to keep my mouth shut to prevent his breath from going down my throat again.
‘You’ve been summoned,’ he said. He brought his lips right up against my ear and said: ‘I’ll get you eventually. It’s a big school. Lots of lonely corners.’
Kieran backed away and moved to one side of the cafeteria entrance. Mike stood to the other, letting the four of us step inside. Thomas, Marissa and Elena were huddled together right at my back.
Copyright Eric Poirier 2015