Amy was nearly in a blind panic.
Her freedom from the four dogs, so recently earned, was purchased with exhaustion. She’d found refuge from the dogs, but even after a night and change of solid sleep, her nerves felt frayed and her thoughts came through quickly, disjointed and out of order.
Noises. I have my backpack again. But no carrots. Noises. So tired. My gun. Which gun?
This house, the onetime bastion of safe refuge, was no longer secure, and Amy mourned for its loss.
Harsh, thumping and scrabbling noises from above. Amy could feel the hair on both arms raised as her heart pounded uncomfortably through her chest. Her lungs felt small and closed, and she gasped as if the very oxygen had left the room.
Get a hold of yourself. Breathe. Breeeaathe.
Her shoulders lowered slightly as she caught her breath, but her body still felt tense, tight, alert.
What the hell was that?
Amy tried to marshal her mind and push it forth into rational analysis of the situation. The sounds had a weight to them. Too heavy for a raccoon, but she couldn’t discount the possibility of a slightly larger animal, like a dog.
It could just be a door, swinging on its hinges in the wind. You did see at least one broken window upstairs.
Amy shook her right hand awake and grasped at the zippered hip pocket of her jacket, where the .32 resided, loaded and waiting. She was less than confident in the integrity of the gun. The hammer seemed to work fine when she pulled the trigger, unloaded, but she’d been reticent to fire a test shot, both for the noise and attention it might bring, and the possibility that the thing might literally blow up in her face.
She had no idea how old the bullets were, for one. They might not even fire. The gun had nickel plating that was worn off in several places, which did not give her great vibes about the structural integrity of the steel. On top of all of that, the gun was an ancient-looking breaktop revolver. I small button on the top of the gun made the whole thing pop up and open for easy loading. Convenient, yes, but she wondered how this technology would be viewed in terms of modern safety standards.
Well, good luck finding a gunsmith out here, girlfriend.
Kicking herself one final time for being too afraid to test out the gun, she crept away from the front door and started to make her way toward the maroon-carpeted staircase on her left, right hand outstretched and ready with the revolver.
The staircase came down from the second floor in a wood-banistered U shape. Two steps led up to a wide landing. Turn to the right and seven more steps led to a second landing with a picture window. Turn right again and several more steps led to the second floor. Unfortunately, as Amy drew close to the lower landing, she could see that the upper set of stair was blocked by a large desk and a sofa, jammed together into the passageway. Amy walked up to the second landing to examine the odd configuration of furniture.
There was a small gap on the lower left hand side of the desk through which Amy could see up into the dark interior of the second floor hallway, but it looked barely large enough for a small dog to slip through. A quick nudge with her toe told Amy all she needed to know about the weight of the objects blocking her path.
Maybe there’s another way up.
With a last, distrustful glance at the small gap beside the desk, Amy backed down the staircase. She held out the gun in front of her as she moved back down toward the entryway. She thought this was how they did it on Cops, and she hoped she wasn’t leaving out some crucial detail like remembering not to lock your elbows, or holding your breath when you pull the trigger.
She turned left at the entryway, easing down a hallway that bisected the house on the first floor. Blue and pink floral patterns surrounded her.
This wallpaper: horrific.
A formal dining room appeared through a doorway on Amy’s left. She glanced in, but the two other doorways in the room both opened along the right side wall, along the direction of the hallway. Amy moved back to the hallway. on the other side of the hall were three doors. The first opened into a large bathroom. The second was a closet. The third opened into a black staircase, descending into the bowels of the house.
Amy continued down the hallway and arrived in a kitchen. It was dated, but with several pleasant-looking sets of built in shelves, cabinets, and doorways that looked original to the old house. In the far right corner, a door with a window looked out into the back yard. In the left far corner, there was a refrigerator inset in the wall beside a walk-in pantry.
The kitchen, and really the house as a whole, were in remarkably good shape considering the end of the world. But for the layer of dust dulling the shine of the counters, the kitchen looked ready for the next meal. Amy couldn’t help imagining some cute middle-aged couple preparing dinner and dancing to whatever music old people listen to. Something doo-wop-y.
It was so strange that the one significant thing out of place in the house was the only apparent passageway up to the second floor, where she’d heard a noise. But she didn’t see any way an adult could have fit past the desk, and the furniture looked like it would have taken a tremendous amount of strength and effort to push into place.
Amy crossed the kitchen, hovering briefly in front of the refrigerator before the remembered the smell with which she was assaulted back in her own home a few days ago.
No more fridges.
She turned instead to the pantry door beside the refrigerator, hoping that she might find some supplies before she looked outside at the back of the house for a way up. To her surprise, she found not a room packed with dry and canned goods, but a narrow staircase, twisting steeply up to the second floor.
Amy’s gun, which had drifted toward the floor during her exploration, was pointed up the dark staircase with renewed vigor. She could not see the top of the stairs, though. The staircase was very dark and twisted around to the left. Amy figured there must be another door shut at the top of the staircase.
Please don’t be blocked.
Amy crept slowly up the stairs, feeling her way, and cringing at every tiny creak. Finally, after what seemed to her like an hours long journey, she arrived at a door. She grasped with her empty left hand for a handle and found one. Applying careful force, she was surprised to find that the handle relented easily and the door slid open silently under her gentle control.
Amy eased into a dim hallway lit by one small curtained window beside her, looking out at the back yard. Looking down the hallway toward the front of the house, Amy thought she made out more ugly wallpaper with an odd large floral pattern. On the right side of the hall, she could see the outline of the sofa and desk jammed into the staircase. It still seemed bizarre, given the rest of the house, to see the furniture positioned thus, as if it was blocking off entry to the first floor from the second, or vice versa.
Amy turned to the window and drew the curtains so she could better see the desk and sofa, and the other doorways lining the hallway, which she planned to examine for the noise she’d heard. She had no heard a thing since she crashed back through the front door, and she was beginning to think that her frayed nerves had merely played a cruel trick on her mind, but she was devoted now to the idea of getting to the bottom of the mystery. She turned back to the hallway to pick the first door to open.
Her heart immediately leaped up to her throat.
All along both walls of the hallway, what Amy had mistaken in the dim light for ugly wallpaper was actually messy handwriting in a dark brown ink. The wall was absolutely covered, from ceiling to floor, in the letters.
Amy felt the hallway closing in around her as she broke out in a cold sweat and found it suddenly hard to breathe. Her legs felt weak and she backed into the wall below the window, and stared, wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
On the portion of the wall closest to her, she tried to pick out a few words amid the madness. At first she thought she was looking at a foreign language, but after a few moments of focusing on the characters, a few of them resolved into words. But the words were madness. Just random words jumbled together in no particular order. A select few words seemed to jump out with more frequency: fear. dark. mad. bomb. queen. water. There was just no discernible pattern.
Curiosity momentarily conquering her fear, Amy roused herself from the wall and took a few steps down the hallway. Now that she knew what she was looking at generally, she began to realize that there was one pattern in the writing. A group of large lines on the left side of the hall that she’d initially taken for a series of scratched out words were actually letters overlaying the wild ramblings on the wall. Amy took a few more steps to get a closer look. TRUHSUSKAMRETAWKABOGRVEN.
Amy was disappointed at first. She’d hoped to find some message, a clue about what she could hope to find when she reached Pittsburgh and the remainder of local civilization. She almost dropped it completely and moved on, but something was tickling the back of her mind. She was suddenly thinking of high school and the stupid games that she and her friends used to play. Find the grossest eater in the cafeteria. Who has worn the same clothes a few days in a row. How many ribbons of tape can we stick in the new girl’s hair.
It was embarrassing, thinking about the person she’d been. Amy shuddered at herself and said a silent prayer of apology to anyone who might still be around that she’d hurt. She never considered herself a bad person, even then, but peer pressure was a hell of a thing, even subconsciously. It was amazing the situations you could find yourself in before you so much as realized how you got there.
But no, this was something more innocent. A game she’d played for her own enjoyment. She read the letters again.
TRUHSUSKAMRETAWKABOGRVEN. What is that? There is something there.
Suddenly, it hit her.
It’s backwards. How many times did you sound out words backward in your head back in school? You used to think you were so damn clever spouting them off to people.
After a few seconds of puzzling over it, she tried saying it aloud.
“Nev-rgo-bak-wat-erm-aks-ush-urt. Nevrgobakwatermaksushurt. Never go back. Water makes us hurt. HA!”
In the excitement of the mystery, Amy had forgotten her true mission on the second floor and spoken a little louder than she intended. Not a half second after she uttered, “HA!” she heard a sudden rustling movement from down the hall. Amy froze, muscles tensed for what seemed like the hundredth time in the past hour. And as she focused again on her mission, the dark theme behind the writing on the wall impressed itself upon her. Never go back. Water makes us hurt. Never go back to what? Never go back to the room in this house? The desk and couch wedged into the stairway suddenly seemed so much more ominous.
Should I go back? WHAT DOES IT MEAN?? No. I have a gun. I can do this. If it’s a wild animal, maybe I have fresh food.
As if she’d ever cooked a wild animal. Still, she figured there couldn’t be too much to it. Build a fire. Heat it up. The end, right?
The sound had come from the left hand side of the hallway. There were two doors on that side, side by side. Amy slid stealthily up to the first, and gently turned the door handle with her left hand, right hand outstretched and ready to shoot. She let the door swing open while she ducked behind the wall. Stealing a glance into the room, she found that it appeared to be completely empty. Pink walls. A small bed. Surprisingly vibrant cream carpet.
Now there was no doubt. Whatever, or whomever was in this house was behind the second door. Amy looked doubtfully down her arm again at the .32 and its fragile-looking break top. She prayed it would hold together if need be.
Amy moved as silently as possible to the neighboring door, sweating out each minuscule creak of the floorboards beneath her.
I’m going in hot. Surprise is on my side.
Amy grasped the doorknob, and with one swift movement and a bloodcurdling scream, she turned the doorknob and flung the door into the room, flying in after it.
She could not have been more shocked to find a handsome yet odd looking young pale boy with a green-mottled face blinking back at her, and she paused, mentally disarmed by the unexpected sight. But in that brief moment, the boy’s countenance changed completely. Suddenly, he was red with rage, teeth bared and rushing at her.
Amy’s gun was still held at arm’s length, finger tense on the trigger, and she pulled it, more as a reaction to the sudden thing rushing toward her than out of fear, although of that there was plenty. The shot was deafening, and Amy dropped the gun instantly, surprised beyond belief that the ancient bullets had fired, and afraid that the noise was the gun blowing up in her hand.
The boy looked down himself, felt for holes, found none, then glanced behind himself, where he spotten a small hole in the wall where the bullet had punctured. Truthfully, it had not come close to hitting him.
Amy was still wincing at the ringing in her ears as she observed the boy checking himself for wounds. She looked down for the gun. It had bounced several feet away toward the interior of the room. She was just beginning to move to recover it, but the boy was on her in a flash, bashing her from all sides, with hands and arms and shins and feet and teeth and who knows what else. The strikes were coming fast and forcefully, but not especially painfully. Just enough to get her moving backward out of the maelstrom. The boy was small but he seemed irrationally powerful with sinewy strength. He quickly backed Amy out of the room with a series of quick shoves and blows.
Presently, Amy found herself nose-to-door in the hallway, wondering just what the hell had happened. She wanted the gun back, but there was no way she was going back in the room with that… thing. Nor was she going to stay in the house with it. She raced down the hallway toward the back stairwell, back down through the kitchen, down the lower hallway, and out the front door, pausing only to grab her backpack and bolt action rifle.
Amy ran through the snow for as long and hard as she could, turning randomly so as to lose herself and anyone who followed. Eventually, she found herself in a forest, leaning against a fallen tree and gasping for breath. Night was falling, but Amy had no particular desire to find shelter.
To hell with houses. Seriously.
Amy looked about the fallen tree and began gathering some sticks for a fire. She didn’t really want to draw any attention to herself or her whereabouts, but she wasn’t about to spend all night out here, freezing to death, either. She’d take her chances with a fire. After a few frustrating attempts with her lighter, Amy finally caught fire to some dried birch bark, and pretty soon she had a respectable fire going.
Amy opened a can of Hormel chili and set it in the fire to warm up. After a few minutes, she rubbed her fingers in the snow, then pulled out the can as quickly as she could and set it down. Dipping her fingers in, she found that the Chili was barely lukewarm in the center although the can itself seemed unbearably hot. It was just as well seeing as she had no silverware. After scarfing down most of the can, Amy made a bed of bark and leaves, and was just leaning back on her backpack as a pillow when she heard a stick crack nearby.
Whirling around and grabbing the rifle from the ground, Amy hopped to her feet and pointed the gun in the direction of the sound. At first she saw nothing, but then she detected a low, loping form coming at her from the dark. Her nerves frayed, Amy nearly pulled the trigger, but something stayed her hand. She would find out later that she had not properly cocked the rifle even if she’d wanted to shoot.
As the form came closer, Amy started to laugh with relief. It was the Pit Bull. She’d nearly forgotten it among the events in the house, but it must have followed her when she left. She grabbed the remaining Chili and offered it to the dog. The dog did not pause to consider. It jogged happily over to the can and chowed down, tail wagging vigorously.
Amy laid back down on her makeshift bed as the dog licked the can clean. She was just beginning to drift off when she felt the dog draw close and lay down beside her. Amy beckoned the dog closer, patting the ground by her midsection, and the dog nestled in. And for the first time since she’d gone underground, Amy felt just a little bit happy.