Free Fiction Wednesday: Just to Spite Your Face

atomic bomb

Please enjoy the following story, one of four from my recently released collection from Bucket ‘O Guts Press, Mio Padre il Tumore:

Just to Spite Your Face

by Steve Lowe

 

Jerry is fourth in line for his rhinectomy. He hates waiting.

He’s stuck next to a lady called Fanny. Her face is opaque and Jerry sees her jaw and teeth and tongue grinding in her mouth as she tells him, “I’m getting my facelifts re-touched.”

“Why?”

Fanny looks at Jerry and he hears her voice in his head say, “What do you mean, why?” Then he notices her iPiece and realizes she wasn’t talking to him.

She looks at his nose.

Jerry turns to the old television in the corner of the waiting room. The President is on, talking about the attack the night before, the Guerillas again. Grave-looking men stand on each side of the President, talking to his two heads.

A woman strolls by, dazed and floating. A mask hangs from her ears, a tiny white curtain covering the flat spot where her nose used to live. A female computer voice says from the ceiling, “Daniel?” and a massive man on a scooter zips through the waiting room, disappears into the back.

Jerry thinks, “I’m third in line now.”

Signs on the wall above the TV read: Welcome to FedMed – YOUR Dollars Working For YOU! and Beauty – It’s More Than Skin Deep™

Jerry watches Fanny’s face from the corner of his eye, the outline of her molars and incisors and jawbone working in unison as she chats away on her iPiece.

Jerry removed his own iPiece when he entered the clinic. Something inside the building interferes with the gadget. The static feedback and distortion pierces his skull, causing terrible headaches. But he feels bare, disoriented without it, his stream of constant info no longer planted in front of his own left eye. He pats his shirt pocket where his iPiece sits, still on and faintly murmuring entertainment and vital information into his chest.

A warm spot over his heart.

Jerry looks back at the ancient, archaic television set. The President’s two heads are speaking at once. The left side is smiling and laughing, the left hand held out to the audience, palm up. Jerry can’t hear what the left head is saying through its unnaturally wide smile. The right head is angry and barking, fist pounding the podium. Jerry can’t make out what the right head is saying either. Their words mix together, the left and the right. Their static and distortion also make his head hurt.

An hour goes by and Jerry fights boredom-induced sleep. The huge man on the scooter motors out from the back, thinner now, gaunt-looking, his emptied flesh sagging and gelatinous. A moment later, another man, sickly skinny, staggers through the waiting room. Glassy eyes float above a white mask and Jerry imagines the new, gaping holes in the man’s flat face.

Jerry’s nose runs. He wipes it with his sleeve and thinks I’m second in line now.

A girl wanders into the waiting room. The female computer voice in the ceiling chirps, “Good afternoon Candace. Please have a seat and we will call you when your procedure is ready to begin.”

Jerry watches Candace take a seat across from him. Her iPiece, a clear rectangle of plastic, hovers in front of her left eye, which stares straight ahead, glazed, mesmerized by the content streaming into it. But her right eye twitches up and down, left and right, nervous and unsettled, like the look on her face.

Like the feeling deep down in Jerry’s guts.

He looks back at the TV President. The left head is angry now, growling at the assembled Congress, baring white fangs. The right head is serene, speaking gently, the right hand casually slipped into his pants pocket. Jerry still can’t make out what they’re saying. His head still hurts.

An older woman stumbles out from the back, plodding along with the help of a metal walker. Her hair as white as the mask strung over her ears, shielding a face that lacks contour. Tennis balls wrapped around the walker’s feet skid across the tile floor and her worthless left foot drags along behind her.

Bump-bump-sliiiiiiiiiiide. Bump-bump-sliiiiiiiiiiide.

Jerry sneezes into his hands and thinks I’m next in line.

Both the President’s heads are laughing now. They stare directly into the camera, directly into Jerry. A trickle of snot leaks from his nose and spreads across his lips, salty.

The iPiece is his shirt pocket buzzes faintly and the female computer voice in the ceiling calls out, “Jerry?”

* * *

Jerry walks down the antiseptic corridor, the walls pockmarked by doors on each side. Bright light pours through the lone, eye-level window in each door.

The female computer voice in the ceiling instructs him, “Bear to your right and enter the last room on your left. A technician will be with you momentarily to begin your procedure. Thank you, Jerry.”

Jerry tiptoes along the silent corridor, afraid to break the serene calm of the clinic, where dozens of people are in the process of reshaping their looks and their lives. He made himself sick with excitement for two weeks anticipating this day, and now that he is here, he feels sick again, but not in the same way. His spine bunches like a knotted rope twisting through his torso. He feels taut, ready to snap.

 I’m just anxious for my procedure. It’s only natural.

He doesn’t believe himself.

Jerry comes to the end of the corridor and stands before the door he was instructed to enter. He reaches for the knob, but pauses. Another door, two down from his, opens. A sickly skinny man with a shock of spiked hair glides out into the corridor. His facemask dangles, his dilated eyes leaking, his nose gone.

Jerry steps back to look in the other room. White, mechanized arms extending down from the ceiling drift about through the air. Their precise movements mesmerize Jerry. A robot hand carries a tray toward an opening in the wall and dumps its contents through as the door silently glides shut. When Jerry awakens from his momentary trance, the other man is gone and Jerry is left alone in the claustrophobic closeness of the corridor.

“What am I doing here?” Jerry barely notices he is speaking aloud. His voice is alien, not his own.

His iPiece buzzes again and the female computer voice in the ceiling answers him. “Bear to your right and enter the last room on your left. A technician will be right with you to begin your procedure. Thank you, Jerry.”

Jerry flinches. His nose runs, into his mouth. He tastes it.

He runs.

* * *

The alarm wounds his brain. The sharp squawks resonate through the entire building, the universal sound of emergency alertness. The modern call to attention that something bad is happening. Jerry knows the alarm is for him, for pushing through the door at the opposite end of the corridor, the one clearly marked DO NOT ENTER. But the sound of the alarm is so closely associated with the Guerillas that he catches himself looking around for them, automatically, Pavlovian.

Alarm equals attack. Guard against terror. Fight the Guerillas. Take back the night. That piercing, clear tone, synonymous with fear, danger, pain.

Jerry trembles at the mere thought of the Guerillas. Short, hairy, sinister. Always around a dark corner, lurking, waiting. Leaving a bomb in a transit car, opening fire in a crowded café, suicide attacks, their bodies loaded down with explosives and roofing nails and ball bearings, sprinting and jangling toward their targets. If you could hear them coming,  then you were dead. Guerillas were the enemy and Jerry saw them everywhere, especially when he didn’t have his iPiece in, with its comforting stream of knowledge and data and funny videos, iMail and iTalk and …

The alarm ends. Jerry is tucked back in the corner of a storage room, nestled beneath soft plastic packaging of snowy white, hands clamped over ears. Trembling in the wake of the alarm. His iPiece buzzes again and again and he hears the voice in the ceiling out in the hall calling for him. He removes his iPiece and switches it off, then tries to remember the last time he had done so. He can’t.

He leans back into the soft bags and closes his eyes. There are no Guerillas here. Time disappears. Voices drift past, hushed and hurried. They don’t find him there, in his cocoon.

Jerry’s heart slows, his pulse normalizes. Exhaustion supplicates fear and he slips into sleep.

* * *

Jerry awakens to a muffled noise on the other side of the wall he is slouched against, the smoky tendrils of a nightmare instantly melting away. His mound of plastic packaging still surrounds him, close and hot and slick with his perspiration. He panics and kicks the airy bags away, clawing toward the light, but there is none in the black storeroom.

The memory of the alarm lingers in his mind, dangles from his brain stem like the phantom tingle of a severed limb. He remembers where he is and why. He ran because he was afraid. But where did that fear suddenly come from? Or why did he just now recognize it for what it was?

His grandmother’s voice, cracked but resonate, says from the deep of his memory, “Don’t cut off your nose just to spite your face.”

Jerry runs his hands over his face, feels the contour of it. Lips, dry and splitting, chin spiked with stubble, his high cheekbones products of his European lineage. Nose, bulbous and jutting. Jerry feels his nose and closes eyes, tries to picture his face without it. He imagines the cord from the mask strung over his ears.

Snot runs down his lips into his mouth, tastes like blood. He hears the noise again, like something inside his head digging, chewing its way out.

He opens his eyes and listens. The muffled crunch continues, growing louder in proportion to his realization of it. A grinding, tearing, cracking; a sound like animal ingestion. He places his ear to the wall and listens.

Panic pinches him in the absolute darkness and he feels his way along the wall for a light switch or an exit, stumbling over the bags of soft material, wondering about the contents.

Gauze? Facemasks? He shudders at the thought of a thousand facemasks for a thousand faces, a thousand noses.

Where do they go, the noses? Do the robot arms dump them down the hole in the wall? Do they fall down into the bowels of the clinic? Do they throw them out with the trash? Recycle them? Incinerate them?

Jerry comes to a corner, a new wall. He tries to remember seeing a door at this end of the room, but knows that he never bothered to look. Never took the time to see his surroundings before the lights went out. Too frightened to notice.

His hand strikes cool metal, round like a doorknob. He grips and twists and is relieved that it is not locked. He pulls the door in and rushes through into more darkness. The smell hits with a nauseous wave and Jerry knows instantly to go back the way he came, that his weak stomach will not last long in here, wherever he is.

Jerry holds his mouth and nose with one hand while searching through the dark for the doorknob. He finds no cool metal orb on this side of the door, though. He gropes, panicky, but feels only smooth, solid steel. He gags from the stench, like turned dairy products, the puddle of old milk around the clogged grate of the grocery store cooler where he lasted just two weeks as an employee, about a hundred years ago.

He searches for something else, a handhold, a solid object, another wall or door, anything to guide him. He reels with vertigo in the shapeless, unfamiliar, rancid dark. He steps on something with a crunch, soft and slick, but solid at its core. He takes another step forward and his left foot sinks into a pile of the same. Objects tumble around his foot, bury it up to the ankle, and he trips, falls forward.

His hands plunge into a pile of something up to his shoulders and his face hits the mass with a splat. The smell assaults his nose and rampages through his guts, which reject their contents. Jerry scrambles, his panic nearing delirium, reaching and crawling, slipping through a mound of rubbery, wet, slimy objects, fearing what they might be, probably are, but praying, begging that they’re not.

He notices for the first time the sound that drew him here. Louder now and very near. He freezes and listens. His eyes slowly adjust to the dark and shapes form. A spectral glow several yards away gives the room a sudden, vast feel, like a massive cavern opening, the breadth of the space stretching out before him. From the other end of that space, Jerry hears the sloppy crunch and gurgle of eating, of something massive, chomping, chewing, swallowing. A sluice of fluids and a rumbling. The whoosh of air intake and noisy, wet, rattling exhalation. Between the nausea and stench and horrible texture of whatever he is stumbling through, and that wet, dense din, Jerry’s head swims.

The lights come on at that moment and Jerry sees, squints.

The noses piled before him and beneath him are a small mountain, building to a peak of pink and red and brown and tan, of flesh and cartilage. He stands knee deep in noses, too horrified to make a sound. From a chute in the wall to his left comes a light tumbling sound as another nose bounces out and pinwheels through the air onto the pile, the surgicallylasered end cauterized, smelling faintly of charred meat.

A scream builds in Jerry’s throat, on the verge of exploding from lungs, but catches there when the hand appears above him. Four fingers and a thumb, covered in translucent, pinkish-gray skin and large enough to envelop him, glide through the air and drop down to the pile of noses. Jerry jumps back as long fingernails, yellow and split and stinking, narrowly miss his chest. They plunge into the noses and curl in, hoisting away a handful. Jerry can’t see where the hand goes, but he hears the sound, the chomping, crunching, grinding, swallowing.

A voice from the other side of the nose mound calls out, “Time to eat, you huge bitch!”

A grate rolls away from the black ceiling above and a hose drops down. The crunching stops and there is a silent pause. Jerry holds his breath in anticipation, his scream a blockage now, cutting off his wind. From within the workings up in the ceiling, gears turn and a motor rattles to life. Fluid sputters and sprays from the rusted end of the hose, chunky pink viscera flinging about as pockets of air chatter through the line. Then the spray explodes from the hose, a full stream of the stuff, showering down.

Despite his fear, Jerry has to look, has to know what this place is, what that hand belongs to. He crawls up the nose mound, slowly closer to the edge. The room drops down several feet and he realizes he’s up high, on a second level, overlooking a large room, dank and fetid. In the far left corner, a man dressed in a rubber suit like a firefighter leans on a lever and watches the spectacle before him with either a grimace or a grin, Jerry isn’t sure which. He leans further over the edge to see what the man is looking at.

Long and tubular, like a giant worm, pink-gray flesh stretches tight over its pulsating, dripping body. A hairless head, turned up to the hose, a great mouth opened wider than seems possible, catches the plopping contents from the sky. Jerry watches in frozen disbelief as the worm undulates with each swallow, ripples roiling through it, internal organs just visible through the milky skin.

He thinks of the woman in the waiting room. Fanny, with her jaws and her teeth and her face stretched tight against her chin. He thinks of the enormous man on the scooter emerging from the back, roughly half his original girth, his skin drooping from his bones. He watches the pink slush spray down and can smell it, smell them. He looks down at his hands, propping himself up on the pile of noses to see down into the pit, the thing down below. Eating, drinking, gargling, rumbling, consuming.

He takes it in again, unable to process the sight, seeing without comprehension. He follows the length of it, at least twenty feet. A dark mass slides through the translucent tube, inching along with each convulsion from the head, each guttural ingestion of liquid fat. He looks to the end of the creature, where its body narrows and another mass is making its way out. There, a second man in a glistening yellow slicker coaxes the dark mass out from the end of the creature, births it into the world. It has arms and legs, like an adolescent child. Jerry watches in horrified disgust, incapacitated by equal parts fear and revulsion and curiosity.

The second man picks up a hose and sprays the new thing with water and it reacts, cowering against it. It turns away from the hose and Jerry sees its Guerilla face. More Guerillas crawl about and stumble to their feet, testing their limbs, flexing their stubby fingers, bumping into each other. Jerry‘s wide eyes take it all in, his myopic focus finally broadening, opening to the scope of what is happening. A dozen Guerillas fumble about in differing stages of existence. Those able to walk without much trouble have also begun to dry, their dark, matted hair sticking out from their bodies in tufts. They help the fresher offspring to their feet as still more inch their way out of the mother creature.

The pump within the ceiling shuts off and the last bits of liquid drop from the hose into the mother’s mouth, which catches it all. She lowers her head, still working the meal through her considerable length, smacking her lips together wetly. She turns toward Jerry, a mostly shapeless mass with two huge, glittering eyes, two vertical slits for a nose, and that terrible hole of a mouth. She reaches for the nose mound and Jerry watches the hand with a disembodied interest as it hovers near, descends down over him. It begins to close around him when his body finally breaks free from its terrified paralysis.

His lodged scream also breaks free as he scrambles away from the hand, the fingers scraping his head, his arms, ripping into his shirt. He tumbles back, head over heels, noses rolling down with him, bouncing off his face and chest.

A voice from down in the pit yells, “What the hell was that?”

Jerry jumps to his feet and slams into the door, reaching for the handle he already knows is not there.

“We got a breach! Containment, down to the basement, we got your runner!”

Jerry searches around for something, anything. The hand scoops away more noses and Jerry can see the heads of the workers down below, running toward the exit door, just visible past the edge of the shelf. The door doesn’t move against his shoulder and he stops throwing himself against it when the pain makes his eyes water. He considers the pit, jumping down, fighting his way out.

Who are you kidding? You’re a coward. You’ll break your leg jumping down. There’s Guerillas down there.

He hears them as well, their agitated cries. The beast that bore them huffs on her mouthful of noses and turns her head back, her pupils dilated and fixed on him. Her hand reaches again and Jerry feels his bowels loosen. He can’t think, can’t save himself, can’t do much more than weep and tremble.

A tumbling sound from his left draws his attention to the far wall, where a nose bounces out of the chute from above and lands on the pile. Jerry sees it and reacts.

He feels the mother beast’s nails scrape against his right shoe as he scrambles up through the narrow chute. He is slick with sweat and sickness and other, foreign fluids, and he struggles up into the metal shaft, adrenaline powering his muscles. Minutes pass like hours as he climbs, the occasional nose tumbling down, bouncing off of him. He eventually reaches a junction thatbranches off into several secondary chutes leading away to different parts of the clinic. He sticks with the main shaft before him, clawing and shuffling, painfully, slowly, reaching for the white square of light ahead.

Jerry does not recognize the sensation inside him. He feels a wellspring bursting from within, a shower of energy that filters through his body out to the tips of his fingers and toes, to the end of his nose.

“I don’t want to die. Oh, God, please. Don’t let me die.”

He reaches the white light of the opening, urged on by his imagination, thoughts of Guerillas scrambling lithely up behind him and tugging him back down to be consumed by the monster that bore them.

He pushes through the hole and tumbles out of a wall, falling to the floor and slamming into the base of a surgical chair.

A girl in the chair says, “Hey, what’s going on?”

Jerry stands, wincing with pain from every joint and stressed muscle, his drenched clothes clinging to his body. He looks at the girl, at the robot arm hanging from the ceiling, the laser gripped between its mechanical fingers. He recognizes the girl from the waiting room, the scared look still in her right eye. He pulls her by the arm, drags her from the chair, from the room.

The female computer voice in the ceiling says, “Please have a seat in the chair, Candace, so your procedure can begin.”

Jerry says, “C’mon, we have to get out of here.”

Candace says, “Oh… OK.”

Out in the main hallway, red lights flash high on the wall every ten feet.

That must be for me.

Jerry looks around, trying to think. He imagines a team of armed guards covering each exit, waiting to gun him down. He looks at himself, filthy, stinking, dripping. He looks at Candace swaying next to him, at her fresh, clean medical scrubs.

Jerry guides Candace back into the room and helps her into the chair. The robot arms go to work.

* * *

Jerry glides out into the lobby, which bustles with excitement. He struggles to ignore the woman’s iPiece over his left eye and the images streaming into his head, to focus on playing the part. Sweat seeps into the fresh, white medical scrubs, builds on his upper lip. He tries to breathe slowly so the facemask won’t flutter. His nose feels massive on his face, even hidden beneath the mask, as obvious as the red warning lights flashing throughout the building. Security guards stalk past with machine guns in hand. They don’t bother to look at him.

Jerry catches a glimpse of the TV, the President still on. Both heads are silent, watching, boring a hole through him.

They know.

A security guard stationed near the front desk places his hand on a sidearm at his hip and watches Jerry shuffle toward the door. The iPiece over his left eye buzzes and the female computer voice in the ceiling says, “Thank you, Candace. Have a pleasant day and we’ll see you again at your follow up appointment. Goodbye.”

The guard relaxes and looks back into the lobby. Jerry stumbles out the front door.

He wills himself not to run for three blocks then ducks into the bathroom of a battery replenishing station. He places Candace’s iPiece in the tank of the toilet. He pulls out his own iPiece and decides he’ll flush it. Perhaps they’ll have some fun tracking him along the sewers beneath the city. Jerry feels his mind opening by the minute, new ideas blooming where before there were only vacant, complacent thoughts.

He turns the iPiece on and it instantly buzzes in his hand. He hesitates, knowing he should not linger, but curiosity wins. He places it over his left eye and sees the FedMed logo next to a cartoon icon of a ringing bell.

A pre-recorded message, the female computer voice from the ceiling, chirps, “This is a reminder for your appointment on Monday, August third. We missed you at four o’clock today, Jerry. We hope everything’s OK! Please call our office at your convenience to reschedule your visit. We look forward to having you back soon!”

New Fiction, New Fiction!

I’ve got two new pieces of fiction that went live this week. They’re both short, fast reads. Let me know what you think:

Read “Short Gary Takes a Cow to California” on Esteban’s House of Bizarro

Read “Playcations for Free!” on Bloody Bridge Review

UPDATE (5/27/10): And a third piece for this month just went live at Short-Story.Me. Click here to read “What Philip Did in Tulsa”.

And I recommend checking out the rest of the current issue of House of Bizarro, if that sort of thing floats your boat. Lots of great stuff in there – more fiction, reviews, interviews, and some pretty cool artwork.

Steam Punk Sphinx by Simon Rudd http://www.simonrudd.info

It’s a Free Fiction Monday

Issue 5 of Liquid Imagination is up live. Go check out my story Inconvenienced By Truth. The artwork was done by Jack S. Rogers and the mellow tones on the audio (click the green play button at the top) are courtesy of Bob Eccles. Check the other stories linked at the top as well. Plenty there to entertain you on this Monday morning.

Who wants free fiction?

Since this story is no longer available on the web, I thought I would post it here. If you don’t care for tongue-in-cheek humor or zombies, then this isn’t for you.

 

Mass Consumption 

(originally appeared in the Fall issue of Allegory

by Steve Lowe

©2009

 

Jefferson Franklin le Petomaine had had enough.

“I have had enough,” he declared to his empty apartment as he ripped the stained napkin from his collar and flung it onto his clean plate. He rose to his feet and pounded his meaty fist on the kitchen table to add emphasis. The thin, weathered wood shuddered, rattling the plate and toppling an empty carton of Chinese food. Crumbs old and new flew and danced before resettling into familiar grooves.

“Enough of this blight, of this degradation!” Jefferson turned to the ancient black-and-white television set he had scavenged from the Salvation Army. It was quite the prize when he wrestled it away from a bony vagrant who clearly had no practical use for, nor wall socket to plug in, such technology. Jefferson stabbed an accusing finger at the scratchy, low-def image of Hugh McLaughlin, Kansas City’s Most Popular News Anchor For The Fourth Straight Year!, shimmering on the screen.

“Enough of your lies and insinuations! Enough of your endless bad news, of your fear mongering! Enough of your advertisements designed to frighten the sheep into mass consumption, interspliced with insipid slices of Americana! Enough, I say!”

Jefferson tossed his frayed scarf around his neck and snatched his tweed jacket from the back of his chair. He carefully brushed cat hair from the worn fabric and stuffed his arms into the sleeves. He took a deep breath and pulled the coat around his momentarily shrunken belly to allow the re-sewn button just enough leeway to pop into place. His exhalation stressed the poor button to the point of breaking and also induced an asthmatic fit of coughing. He snatched an inhaler from the table and huffed the medicine until his breathing normalized.

He watched as a breathless female reporter continually looked over one shoulder, then the other, dramatically recounting some kind of horrific attack as a fire raged behind her. Each day, the news stories grew ever more desperate and WKCU’s specially-composed Breaking News theme music grew ever more dramatic, to the point that Jefferson considered hurling his plate of lo mein into the screen. He eventually determined such an emotional overreaction to be an awful waste of perfectly delicious lo mein. That was yesterday, though. Today, he’d finally reached his breaking point. He felt the wretched walls of his pathetic little hovel closing in on him, with nothing on any television channel but this foolishness going on outside. Jefferson rarely switched from WKCU as the other news channels were intolerably worse. Normally, smoldering WKCU meteorologist and wicked temptress Kathleen Spannigan was enough to assuage his daily maelstrom of discontent, but Miss Spannigan’s heavenly visage had not appeared for two straight days due to the preponderance of coverage on this latest conjured crisis.

Jefferson turned to his cat, Maximilien Robespierre le Petomaine, and said, “As per my prediction Maximilien, human civilization is finally eating itself alive.” He held his hand out toward the television to further expound on his point for his mewing pet. “See this, my old friend? On every channel, nothing but the same, nothing but inane analysis and panicky hyperbole over a non-event that has suddenly morphed into a panic, fueled by none other than the over-wrought media machine itself, designed to pump out fear and paranoia in mass quantities and infect the populace with a desire to consume. Well, now that populace will consume itself, unaware of and beholden to its own avarice.” He turned back to the screen just as Hugh McLaughlin’s grim face faded out into an insurance advertisement, sending Jefferson into a rage. “YOU SEE? DO YOU SEE THIS? THIS IS EXACTLY MY POINT!” he shouted, propelling bits of food and spittle across the narrow room.

Jefferson Franklin le Petomaine, named thusly by his mother, Francine Marie le Petomaine, who had feared that such a heavily French surname needed proper patriotic American balance to allow her son any chance at one day becoming president of the United States, stood trembling with anger before his television. Maximilien Robespierre le Petomaine, named thusly for the most famous insurgent of the French Revolution and his Reign of Terror, nuzzled up to Jefferson’s taut belly and rubbed his muzzle against the distressed jacket button. Jefferson strode to the refrigerator and produced a plate of half-eaten moo goo gai pan. He had declared upon first bite three days prior, that it had to have been cooked not with chicken, but rather sewer rat. He placed it on the table in front of Maximilien, who greedily dug in.

“Enjoy, my dear Maximilien, for this may be your final meal if the vultures have their way.” At that moment, Jefferson experienced a vision. Before his mind’s eye, a grand plan began to unfold. He saw himself charging down to the television studio, chastising everyone in his path, and barging into their live feed to announce the truth to the world, that this consumer-driven mass hysteria was nothing more than a plot to placate the masses. That the world needed to revolt against these charlatans who had contributed nothing to the Greater Good with their “fair and balanced” lies.

“I have seen this coming for a long time, but now I must act,” he told Maximilien. The hungry cat kept its face buried in the plate of cold leftovers, purring loudly as it devoured the mysterious meat. “I have sat idly by for far too long, swallowing it all and contributing nothing, and now, look at what is happening.”

Jefferson prepared to depart and brushed back his hair as neatly as the stringy, tangled mess would lie. The television buzzed with yet another on-scene report. A young man clutching a microphone ran along a sidewalk.

“As we began to set up for this report, a band of attackers appeared from behind a building and tried to accost us,” the sprinting reporter relayed. “We are now on the run for a safer spot-” In mid-sentence, the reporter disappeared from the camera’s view. A blood-curdling scream rang out clearly through the tiny TV’s tinny acoustics, causing both Jefferson and Maximilien to flinch. The camera spun about wildly and the sounds of a struggle were evident, as was a growing chorus of ghastly moans. Then the camera clattered to the ground, falling on its side, still broadcasting its skewed picture. Hugh McLaughlin and his co-anchor, the ditzy Maryanne Tinley, called for a response from the reporter. Instead, a host of feet both shod and bare shuffled across the screen in a slowly advancing line. The awful groans grew louder until the view switched back to the stunned anchors, sitting motionless with mouths agape.

“Ridiculousness,” Jefferson announced with a wave of his hand as he exited his apartment. He burst out of the building into the bright midday sun, full of purpose and striding grandly along the sidewalk adjacent to Donner Avenue. After just two blocks of marching, his breathing grew ragged and his gait slowed. He paused at the deserted corner of Andes and Donner and scanned all four directions for signs of life while catching his very short breath.

With another tug on his inhaler, Jefferson set off once more, though at a much more conservative pace. He practiced his speech and considered his reflection in the windows of the darkened, apparently empty shops along the way.

“Citizens! The hour is upon you to WAKE UP!” He paused before a liquor store and adjusted his scarf. “No, that will never do.” He stroked the sparse whiskers that populated his chin in wiry blotches. “It is time to shed our dependency on the system,” he told his reflection. “It is time to learn to live off this fertile land of ours once again, to use our hands to create our own wealth and eschew this credit- and fear-driven society. Melt down your plastic and remove yourselves from the grid! Throw off your shackles! Burn your money and turn up your soil! Begin planting for tomorrow, for the future!” He grinned at the booming sound of his voice as it echoed through the barren neighborhood.

A man suddenly appeared in the darkened doorway of the liquor store. His clothing was torn and his jaw hung loosely as he emitted a pained groan. A wave of foul, rotten air enveloped Jefferson and antagonized his already weak gag reflex. He covered his mouth and nose with his hands and stepped back. “My God, man, have you never been introduced to the tooth brush?”

The indigent old man held out his hands and moved toward Jefferson, who continued to retreat. A lifetime in this downtrodden neighborhood had taught him how to adeptly avoid contact with the beggars and vagabonds who littered the way. “I haven’t any money, nor would I give you any if I did, seeing as how you would clearly only end up staggering back to this liquor store anyway.”

The man’s only response was his pitiable moaning as he incessantly slouched forward. Jefferson stopped abruptly, full of reproachful anger.

“Damn you man, can you not see that I have no time to waste with this nonsense?”

“Uuuuhhhh…”

Jefferson stood his ground with his fists planted on his plump hips. “I will not cow to your pathetic pleas. I am on a mission to save you and the rest of your ilk scurrying about the dark corners of this wretched neighborhood. I am about to throw back the curtain and expose the truth of this bastardized Oz. The least you can do is show me a bit of respect.”

The man reached for the lapels of Jefferson’s coat. He recoiled and threw his hands up in defense. The man pressed straight into him, jaws working as if he meant to bite Jefferson, who reflexively pushed the man away. He turned and stalked off, flustered by the encounter. The pathetic beggar stumbled over his own clumsy feet toward the gutter, where he fell into the street. There was a frightening snap, much like twigs crunching under foot during a quiet stroll through the woods.

“My God, are these the people who will benefit from my benevolence?” He shook his head incredulously while the old man, face down in the street, sputtered into a puddle and thrashed his limbs about. “Is there not one man or woman in this sewer worthy of my efforts?”

A distant moan answered his rhetorical query. It began as a slow roll from around a corner, an unseen voice gradually growing in volume. It was soon joined by another voice, and then exponentially until the chorus grew quite loud. A group of groaning, wailing, dragging people edged around a building corner and began to slouch their way down the sidewalk toward Jefferson. More appeared from doorways and added to the whole that inched forward.

“Hello there, what is going on?” None offered an answer. Old men and young women and small children held their hands out and called to him longingly. Fear began to pinch his heart, but anger quickly joined that emotion. “I say again, what are you people doing?” Still no response, save for their pathetic wailing and moaning.

“This is exactly what I am talking about. You’re all sheep, the lot of you! One following the other, as you always have and always will.” Their combined moans began to resemble the bleating of an actual herd of sheep and Jefferson responded in kind. “BAAAAHHHH! BAAAAHHHH! This is how you sound to me! Nothing but sheep!”

Jefferson turned in a huff and resumed his advance toward the television station. He threw glances over his shoulder and noted the ridiculously slow horde, which continued to follow and swell in number. The sheep streamed from every cross street and spilled over from the sidewalks on each side into the middle of the road. They wormed around abandoned cars and stumbled over debris in their path, seeming to pay it no mind whatsoever.

Jefferson came to the next cross street and more moans greeted him from each direction. He avoided eye contact and sped up, pumping his arms and legs with purpose. They reached for him, groaning pathetically, and one man was even naked! Of all the ridiculousness!

“Bloody fools, don’t even know to cover themselves in public. Have they all gone mad?” His cheeks burned with embarrassment and he held a hand up next to his face to shield the disturbing vision. “HAVE YOU ALL GONE MAD?”

Jefferson’s chest constricted and his lungs burned as another asthmatic spasm threatened. He knew he should stop and catch his breath, but he began to worry that perhaps his comments were too sharp, had hit too close to home, even with these simpletons. Directly in his path, a pickup truck had jumped the curb and slammed into a Paylittle Shoes store, its front end crumpled into a pile of brick and glass. A large banner announcing a MASSIVE LIQUIDATION SALE, and littered with subliminal instructions to Buy! Buy! Buy! and Save! Save! Save! hung askew across the store front, one corner draped over the hood of the truck. The driver still sat behind the wheel, his seat belt still strapped across his shoulder. He reached out and moaned as Jefferson nervously passed by.

Once clear of the truck, Jefferson stopped, huffing with his hands on his knees. “What in God’s good name is this?” The way ahead began to close with a wall of noisy, slouching fools. Jefferson looked around and realized that he was in the center of a slowly constricting circle. The man in the truck had slipped his seat belt and was now pressed against the truck’s back window, clawing savagely at the glass. His pursuers were ragged and limp, aside from their groping arms and working jaws. Their clothes and skin, and in some cases their limbs, sagged and dangled from their frames.

“People, I implore you, let me pass! There is evil afoot and I am on a mission to put an end to it!” He yelled to them, but their growing, groaning cacophony drowned out even his booming voice. Their circle shrunk ever tighter and Jefferson began to fear for his safety for the first time. The idea of escape entered his mind. He looked around at the buildings and realized he was standing in front of Cho’s Chinese Buffet and Takeout. His stomach rumbled in recognition.

“Of all the perfect luck!” As he reached for the door handle, a bolt of fear struck through him that the door would be locked. Oh, what delicious irony it would be, to meet his end in such a way as this, outside a Chinese buffet. But the door opened easily and he jumped inside. He fumbled with the lock until he heard the bolt slide home and instantly felt at ease. Then he looked across the storefront to see the crowd slowly converging on the front of the restaurant through the tall glass windows.

“That will never do.” He poked his head back out the door and searched the front overhang until he found the roll-down grate that kept the scofflaws out during closed hours. The nearest person was less than 10 feet away, but moving slowly. Jefferson jumped outside and grabbed the bottom of the grate. He held the entrance open while he pulled the grate down until it hit the top of the door, then he scurried back inside and closed the door behind him. The grating trundled down its tracks and slammed on the sidewalk just as the first groping fool reached for him. Jefferson stood inside the door, huffing and watching as the crowd pressed against the metal slats, gnashing and wailing.

Once safely inside, Jefferson turned his back on the horde and considered his surroundings. He had ordered in food from this restaurant for years but had never stepped foot inside the actual brick-and-mortar until now. The sanitary conditions left much to be desired. Spilled napkins and paper menus, covered from top to bottom with dense copy written in both English and Mandarin, littered the floor. He reached for the light switch on the wall, but noticed it was already in the ON position. As the group outside swelled, the natural light coming through the front windows began to diminish. He flipped the light switch a few times before officially declaring it dead.

Jefferson examined the menu board on the wall and casually approached the counter, as though at any moment the ancient Chinese man who answered his call-in orders and could no speak-a much Engrish would appear to scribble down his selections.

Instead, the kitchen area was dark and abandoned. He leaned over the formica and peeked into the kitchen area. Pots and woks littered the stoves and prep tables, along with a variety of wilting vegetables and mounds of rice both cooked and raw. The floor appeared to be awash in a dark liquid that also splashed on the cabinets and pooled in the low spots. A streaking trail of it led down the hall to the steel door of a walk-in refrigerator. Jefferson’s stomach grumbled again at the sight of all the necessary implements for concocting delightful Orient cuisine and decided that he would just have to help himself to what food was still edible.

He found the side door leading to the kitchen and cautiously threw it open. The entire floor was streaked with the dark, thick mess, but it did not deter him. He tiptoed over the larger pools and hopped his way to the prep area, where he was greeted by the foul stench of aged meats that at one time may have resembled chicken and pork. The vegetables looked no better.

Dismayed, he looked to the cooler and the long, crimson trail of liquid that disappeared beneath the door. The steel entrance jumped and vibrated against its rusting hinges and Jefferson heard a moaning from within rising above the clattering noise from the horde outside. The handle wobbled as the occupant within attempted to open it.

Jefferson’s appetite suddenly disappeared. He rushed from the kitchen and searched for an escape. He threw open doors to closets and restrooms, until he found one, near the back of the room that led up a stairway, presumably to apartments on the next two levels of the building, and possibly to the roof.

The front window imploded with a great crash and the ghastly symphony of the masses from without now swamped the room. The metal grating had bent horribly until it struck plate glass. It now clanged and twisted against the crushing weight of hundreds of bodies pressing inward. Those at the front were literally being ground into the metal, which was now black with the same sickly, sticky effluence that coated the kitchen floor. Jefferson’s last line of protection began to screech loose from its side tracks and bowed in, even more as the crowd surged forth.

The electricity suddenly flickered, momentarily casting the ghoulish lot with strobes of fluorescent light. The television mounted high in a far corner of the room sputtered until the power surged fully to life. Above the hungry din, a tanned and blown-dry Hugh McLaughlin, his jacket now cast aside and his tie loosened at the neck, desperately spoke to Jefferson.

“Bar your doors and windows, and if possible, ascend to higher levels of whatever structure you are currently hiding in. Go to your roof and the National Guard will try to reach you by helicopter. Do not attempt to fight your way through the attackers, but if you must defend yourself, there is only one proven method of stopping them, a direct blow to the-” The electricity winked off again and Hugh’s orange face disappeared, along with the artificial light that had filled the room, eliciting a scream of rage from Jefferson. The devilish crowd raged back and the metal grating finally gave way. They poured in, falling over themselves, pushing and pressing, creating a momentary traffic jam in the opening.

“Curse you, blithering idiot box! You have failed me for the last time!” He shook his fist at the television then slipped through the rear exit and ascended the stairs. At the top, a heavy metal door covered with flecking green paint opened up to the flat roof of the three-story building. He flung it closed behind him, but realized that it locked from within, rather than without. How long before the beasts below figured out stairs and doorknobs was anyone’s guess, but Jefferson preferred not to know this answer. His attention turned to the beating in his chest and he realized that it came not only from his thundering heart, but also the thump of nearby helicopters.

“Praise heaven and all the angels, I am saved!” He raced to the waist-high parapet wall at the roof’s edge and waved his arms wildly at the nearest aircraft, a menacing, black military bird five buildings away that had just lifted off from the rooftop. Its open doors bulged with arms and legs and slowly lurched away. It was clearly overloaded, yet people still clung to its wheels and more reached up from the roof, screaming to be saved.

Then chaos erupted as a group of the slouching ghouls burst through the rooftop door. The terrified people reacted in their own ways. A man, shielding a child behind him, stood his ground and chose to fight with his hands. A teenager wielded a club of sorts and attacked the ravenous crowd. A young woman, surrounded by half a dozen fiends, climbed the parapet wall and, just before the tearing hands and rending jaws reached her, leapt off to a fate of her own choosing. The rest were cannibalized with unflinching brutality.

More helicopters hovered across the city, but none chose Jefferson’s roof, with just one lone, pathetic soul to save while others teemed with desperate refugees. He called to them nonetheless, screaming and pleading in futility until the last of the hulking lifeboats turned its tail to Jefferson’s rooftop and flew away. Gasping and hoarse, unable to call out any longer, he slumped to his knees. Sweat and tears streamed down his face and soaked the collar of his tweed jacket. The heavy thump of the chopper’s blades slowly faded off, but was soon replaced by a new thumping sound from behind. Jefferson sat on the warm gravel of the rooftop and watched the metal door, his only option for safe egress from this newly deserted island, vibrate against scores of pounding fists.

“So this is it.” He looked about and considered his final resting place with a pathetic attempt at smug indifference, but found it difficult to choke down the abject fear of being eaten alive by these monsters. His voice cracked. “This is where I shall meet my end, and what a pitiful end it shall be. Not facing my enemies on a field of battle, but cowering in the only corner into which I can stuff my pathetic rear.” Tears flowed freely down his bulbous cheeks.

The thundering against the door steadily increased in rhythm and volume until Jefferson realized that another helicopter was approaching. Unlike the large, black military crafts, this bird was smaller and painted a nondescript white. He jumped to his feet and waved his arms madly. The helicopter responded immediately, deviating from its path to head directly for his rooftop. Joy exploded within him as it neared, and tears of happiness now began to flow. Jefferson backed away toward roof’s edge to give the pilot plenty of clearance to find a spot to set down on the narrow surface. As it descended, Jefferson noticed the large, blue letters WKCU stenciled on the tail. Once the helicopter settled on the roof, the side door slid open and two men greeted Jefferson. One clutched a microphone and beckoned with his free hand, while the other shouldered a camera pointed at Jefferson.

“Hugh! We’ve discovered a lone survivor among the rooftops, apparently left behind by the military rescue choppers! Sir! Come with us! We’re here to rescue you!”

Jefferson froze. He stared directly into the camera and realized that the news crew was filming and he was live. A stream of words swam through his mind, a muddle of his grand speech to the world, but nothing came out. Instead, he imagined himself gratefully accepting this reporter’s hand and tearfully clambering into the helicopter. It would be their dramatic rescue of some poor sap caught in the middle of this calamity and the sheep would laud them as heroes. He imagined film in an editing room being cut and spliced and set to dramatic music that would crescendo as he reached out to his saviors before cutting back to a smiling, ridiculous Hugh McLaughlin, who would look up from his monitor with that familiar, brainless grin that revealed those rows of gleaming, unnaturally white fangs. Then they would fade out to commercial and the image of the fat, grateful slob blubbering his thanks as the helicopter whisked him to safety would compel the masses to resume their avaricious consumption.

The reporter gave the most quizzical of looks and repeated his plea, urging Jefferson to the safety of the helicopter. Jefferson held his ground against the whipping wind from the rotor blades. He set his chin, stood straight, resolutely pulled his tweed jacket about his belly, and inserted the tired button into its distressed hole. He whipped his frayed scarf about his neck and dismissed the camera with a disdainful wave of his hand. “Be gone you bloody parasites! I’ll catch the next one!”

The reporter and cameraman exchanged stunned looks as Jefferson turned and walked away. Without another word, the chopper door slid shut and the helicopter lifted off just as the rooftop door gave way and the undead began to stagger out into the daylight. As the news copter pulled away, the cameraman captured a slowly ascending shot, broadcast to what remained of the nation, of Jefferson Franklin le Petomaine as he climbed the parapet wall, held his arms straight out, and executed an elegant forward pike.