Hi all! It’s been three weeks, so welcome to the next chapter of my serialized horror novel, From The Shadows.
Miss Chapter One? Click HERE.
From The Shadows
Copyright 2017 Eric M. Heiden
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Chapter II: Surrounded
Mark stared at the man in front of him, a little round-faced man who’d walked up pushing an old shopping cart, a man who had changed the course of Mark’s whole day with just seven words: “I’m picking up for my neighbors too.”
“Reason?” Mark asked before either of the men beside him could respond.
“They asked me to,” the man said. “They all just got over a bug. They’re all exhausted. The household should be registered under ‘Harold Jones.’ Five people are living there.” Mark checked his list. There was a Harold Jones there, and it listed five people, just like the man said. He looked up.
“Got his and mine,” the little man said, handing over two cards.
Mark looked them over, frowning. He showed them to his two companions. Anthony, the younger of the two, tilted his head. Frank, older than both Anthony and Mark by far, raised an eyebrow.
“Orson Orwell?” Frank asked, his gaze not leaving the plastic card.
“Yep. Easy to remember, huh? Um…speaking of that, the reason you probably don’t recognize me is that I usually pick up rations when Rachel is running the desk. You can go and ask her if you want; she’ll vouch for me.”
Anthony got up to do just that. Mark would have done the same. True, there was an Orson Orwell on the list, but his asking for two households worth of rations meant they had to do more than check the list. Mark sighed; it also meant they had to do more than verify with Rachel.
Anthony came back and nodded. Mark stood up. When they’d been assigned this task, they’d all been told what do if anyone asked for double rations.
“Mr. Orwell,” Mark said, “everything checks out…but we’re going to need to escort you back to your dwelling.”
Now it was Orwell’s turn to frown. “Are you sure that’s necessary? I don’t want to trouble you.” He looked down. “I’m sure this cart’s big enough to carry everything.”
“It probably is,” Mark responded, “but we have a procedure. We want to make sure nothing happens to you.” He patted his holstered firearm. “With all that extra food, you might attract…unwelcome attention.” He tactfully left out the other reason they’d have to go with him: to make sure he did, in fact, give his neighbors their share of everything.
Orwell’s mouth dropped open. “You’re right. Nothing’s ever happened any of the other times I’ve done a pick-up, but this is the first time I’ve gotten extra. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.” Keeping his eyes on the three armed men, he took back the cards. “Is it alright if we go now?”
It wasn’t just alright; it was preferable. If they left now, they might be back by dark. Mark, Frank and Anthony called for another group to take over the desk, helped load up the cart and then exited the large building with Orwell.
* * *
Even with the sunlight and fresh air, Mark would still rather be inside the stuffy tower; he was sure Frank and Anthony felt the same way. Even though the survivors had buried all the dead they could find, even though there were plenty of unharmed structures, it was impossible to step outside without seeing some sign of the attack: rubble on the streets; buildings that looked like their tops had been ripped off; a hotel that had collapsed in on itself, crushing God alone knew how many people. Going outside also meant seeing the Night Corpses.
While all the other invaders had been driven off, the Night Corpses–faceless, unmoving, humanoid forms floating in the air, their arms and legs limply dangling–still dotted the sky. They were only slightly less visible at day than at night, when they glowed a pale white. It was all Mark could do to keep from firing at them. He understood why some people didn’t want to live by the makeshift storehouses, but he could never grasp how these people could bear walking through all this to get their weekly rations.
It looked like Mr. Orson Orwell’s way of managing it was to keep shifting his gaze up and down, not focusing for too long on either the devastation or the remnants of the enemy forces. For an hour, it actually worked; not a word was said. Then, Orwell came to an abrupt halt.
“When they left, they destroyed the waterworks and all the power plants.” He looked right at Mark. “You guys think the food and water will hold out for a while yet?”
Mark paused, then nodded. “Sure,” he heard Anthony say.
Orwell’s troubled expression didn’t change. He glanced back up at the sky. “There’s so few of us left,” he said. “When they come back, do you think we can fight them off again?”
Anthony didn’t respond.
Mark closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. He didn’t want to have this conversation, but he knew he needed to nip this in the bud. If Orwell’s attitude spread to the rest of the survivors, this would be a problem. After a few seconds, he opened his eyes again, resolved to tell the man whatever reassuring garbage he could come up with. Before he could even say a word, Frank walked to the front of Orwell’s cart and spoke.
“Other than them,” the older man pointed at the floating bodies, “we haven’t seen any Shadow Folk since we drove them out of town four months ago. Now we don’t really know what’s happening out there–after all, we’ve been cut off from the rest of the world, and that Jon Davidson guy who left to survey the surrounding area still hasn’t returned. They’re still out there, surrounding us; that’s a given. That’s why nobody’s allowed to shoot the Night Corpses; it’d be wasting ammo. Here’s the thing, though. The fact they haven’t shown up again suggests the military is keeping the bulk of them busy, too busy to bother with us anymore.” He put a hand on the cart. “At the very least, our boys probably have them at a stalemate, and that’s a worst-case scenario. The next visitors we’ll probably get will be fellow Earthlings telling us we won.”
Mark didn’t know how much Frank actually believed what he was saying, but it did the job. Orwell didn’t smile, but his entire face relaxed, his expression changing to one of relief. The little man nodded and began moving again. Frank and the others joined him.
A scream came out of nowhere. Everybody stopped. After a second, there were others, all coming from an alley just up ahead to the right. The blood all but left Mark’s head. Those were kids’ voices. Mark pulled out his Glock 9 and turned to the others.
“Frank, come with me! Anthony, stay here with Orwell!”
Mark beat Frank around the corner. No Shadow Folk, just a gang of kids, a gang of kids all angrily dogpiling on somebody, somebody screaming in agony.
“What’s going on here?!” Mark demanded.
The kids all stopped, startled. Mark holstered the gun and then, with Frank, rushed over and pulled the youths off their victim, a bruised pre-teen boy with red hair and glasses
A little blond kid pointed at the redhead. “Eliot started it! He punched Henry!”
Still lying on the jagged pavement, the redhead pointed at a boy with black hair, who Mark took to be Henry. “He started it! He called me a retard!”
“He did that ’cause you are one!” the blond kid said.
Mark looked at Henry, who appeared far too old to have such a little kid defend him.
“So you did call him a retard,” Frank said.
Henry smirked. “How else could he not know the names of the different Shadow Folk by now?” A few of the kids laughed, and Henry went on. “The giant spiders that can read minds are called ‘The Inescapable’, not”–he looked at Eliot–“‘The Unstoppable’; that’s what the ghost wolves are called.”
Mark’s arms grew cold; his chest felt like it was burning up. That’s what this was all about?
Frank sighed and looked at Eliot. “That’s no reason to throw a punch, son.”
“Yeah!” Henry said, still looking at his opponent.
Eliot looked shocked, then defeated. Henry smirked again.
“Do you even know what those things up there are called?” the triumphant kid asked, pointing at the Night Corpses overhead. “Or that they block signals and levitate cars?”
Mark’s lips parted, exposing his clenched teeth. He felt his entire body shake. “That’s enough!” he said. “Look up there! Look at what we’re in the middle of! If we’re throwing punches or”–he looked right at Henry–“provoking each other, we’re dead! Is that what you all want?!”
“Disperse!” Mark continued. “I want all of you to go back to your homes!”
The youths obeyed. The two men had Eliot stay behind until the rest were gone. Once it was just them, Mark looked down at the boy.
“Make sure you never do that again,” he said in a much softer tone. “After all that’s happened, you’re lucky to be alive. Don’t take that for granted anymore. The next time that guy mocks you, don’t fight him; don’t even talk to him; just remember that the Night Corpses block transmissions and signals; they don’t levitate cars.”
“I know that,” Eliot said.
“And if he was as smart as he thinks he is–if he was as smart as you are–he would’ve known that too.”
Eliot stared at him for second, then smiled and nodded. Mark nodded back but couldn’t manage a smile.
“Go home,” he said.
The boy obeyed.
Mark stood there for a moment, staring after him, then at the ground. He felt a hand on his shoulder.
“You okay?” Frank asked.
Mark exhaled and shook his head. “I don’t know, Frank.”
The men went back to the cart, and the four were soon on their way again. After another hour, they reached the address. Orwell abandoned the cart, ran up to the door and knocked. A moment later, it was opened by the same man Mark had seen on the I.D. card. So he’d been telling the truth. Mark and the others helped unload the rations and then walked Orwell over to his own home, just across the street.
“So,” Orwell said, “nothing happened, thanks to you guys.” He opened the door and then glanced back at them. “Um, look, I really appreciate you helping like this. I know this wasn’t something you were planning on doing. Obviously, I can’t share my household’s rations, but would you like to come in for bit? Maybe take a break before heading back?”
“Thanks,” Frank laughed, “but if we wait any longer, not only will we be wandering out here after dark, our families will have dinner without us.”
* * *
Frank turned out to be right. They got back just as the sun went down. Those four giant apartment buildings–the two used as storehouses were flanked by two that people actually lived in–were a welcome sight. Mark and the others rushed into the building on their left.
Anthony went as far as the second floor, while Mark and Frank continued up the stairs to the third. They stopped at a brown door with ‘312’ written in black next to it. Before either so much as raised a hand, it swung open.
A young woman greeted them, her hair pulled completely away from her face. “I was sitting right by the door and thought I heard something.” She looked back and forth at the two men. “Glad to know my ears haven’t started playing tricks on me…yet.”
“Ah,” Frank said, “you’re too young for that to happen, Lexi.”
“If only I could believe that, Dad,” Lexi told him. Her expression changed. “Are you both doing okay? They told us that you had to make a delivery.” She slapped her forehead. “What am I doing? You both must be exhausted. C’mon inside! We can talk once you’re resting.”
They complied. Soon, they were at the dinner table with the rest of Frank’s family. Seated next to Frank was his wife, Beverly, a third-generation Korean-American, just like him. Also at the table were Frank’s other daughter, Julie; Julie’s husband, Seth; and Julie and Seth’s three kids.
Frank told them all about their day, including the fight.
“Why do some people live so far away from the storehouses?” asked eight-year-old Trina
“Yeah,” said Trina’s twin sister, Tina. “Why don’t they just live here?”
Seth took it upon himself to answer. “They probably just want more open space.”
August, age ten, spoke up. “I thought it was because they were afraid of dying with the rest of us if the Shadow Folk came back.”
“August!” his parents, aunt and grandparents shouted all at once.
“What?” he said. “That’s what I heard, that those people think we should be more spread out so that the Shadow Folk can’t wipe us out all at–”
“That’s not it at all,” Julie lied, addressing August but looking at the twins. “Your father’s right. Some people just don’t want to be cooped up in here.” She gestured to the open windows. “Even with windows, it’s still pretty stuffy.” The younger kids didn’t look convinced. “Anyway,” she added, “there aren’t enough people left to force everyone to stay nearby, so they let people live where they want, as long as, with a few exceptions, like today, these people pick up their own food instead of someone here going to the trouble of taking it to them.”
Lexi sighed and put a hand to her forehead. “I just can’t believe those kids. With everything going on, they fought,” she looked up, “over the stupidest reason possible!”
“No kid likes being called names,” Frank replied, “especially in front of a bunch of peers. Everyone in this town has been through Hell on Earth, including Eliot; that insult might’ve just been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“No,” Lexi said, “I was talking about that Henry kid. Why pick a fight over the names? First of all, Unstoppable and Inescapable sound too similar already; anyone could make that mistake; I bet he has, even. Second, those aren’t even their real names. That’s just what we call them, like how we call that dog thing that I shot that first night a ‘Mirror Mind’…or how we refer to the whole of them as ‘Shadow Folk’.”
“And how we call wherever they all came from ‘The Shadows’,” added Trina.
“Exactly,” Lexi nodded, “and why do we call it that?” She held out her arm, the palm of her hand face up.
“Uh, because they all came out of nowhere when they attacked us,” August said, “like they were hiding in the shadows up until then.”
Lexi nodded. “Right. We don’t know the official names for them or their world, so why start a fight over some made-up names?” She bowed her head and shook it.
Mark, who hadn’t uttered a word since the meal began, sighed. “I wonder if any of them will even be alive a month from now,” he said, his eyes not leaving his food. He instantly regretted it. The entire table had gone silent–no talking, no eating, nothing.
After an uncomfortable minute, Frank set his knife and fork down. “They will.” Mark looked up at him. “I could tell from their faces that you didn’t just scare them,” the older man continued, “you gave them something to think about, all of them, not just that Eliot boy.”
Very slowly, Mark leaned back into his chair, his slumped posture vanishing.
Frank looked at each of his three grandkids. “What Mr. Marshall said,” he gestured toward Mark, “is how you’ll stay alive too. We can get through this,” he frowned, “but not if we have the wrong attitude.
“I wish I’d thought of telling you this months ago, but better late than never. I want all three of you to promise–no matter how mean someone’s being–that you’ll be kind, that you won’t get in a fight unless there’s actual danger. If you remember that, you won’t just be helping yourselves; you’ll be helping keep everyone around you alive.”
The kids each promised.
“Good,” Frank said, nodding. “I’m going to hold you to that.”
Silence resumed, thankfully not as awful as before. Nobody was talking, but at least everyone was eating instead of sitting still. After a bit though, Mark guessed the lack of conversation was too much for Seth, who sighed.
“I was going to tell you tomorrow,” he addressed his father-in-law, “but you, Lexi and I are all on ‘scavenger duty’ next week.”
Lexi eyes stayed on her plate. “I thought it’d been a while since the three of us did it last.”
“Where have we been assigned?” asked Frank.
“They haven’t told me yet,” Seth answered. “They should have the details in the morning, by Friday at the latest.”
Eventually, dinner ended, and everybody retired for the night. With no electricity other than batteries, which needed to be preserved, the survivors tended to turn in early. Mark, at his usual insistence, slept on the couch.
* * *
Mark woke up suddenly and bolted right out of the makeshift bed. He was shaking.
After a moment, he buried his face in his hands. Another nightmare. Now that he was awake, he couldn’t even remember the specifics. He wasn’t sorry about that. A few minutes passed. He lifted his head back up. A faint light was visible through the ends of the curtain, a hideous, all-too-familiar, evil light.
Mark reminded himself that there was a night watch, that he would have heard an alarm if anything was going on outside, that he didn’t need to look out the window and check on things. He mentally cursed, walked over to the window and pulled the curtains aside.
The shining Night Corpses punctuated the black sky, just like always. Maybe they really were corpses. He’d never seen them move even once before, and tonight was no exception. All was quiet. Mouth shut, Mark exhaled through his nose.
Nothing was out there, nothing that would attack them anyway. He shook his head, closed the curtains and went back to the couch. He stood there a moment. He wanted to believe everything Frank had said, both to Orwell and at dinner; he was desperate to. He wanted to believe that those kids would be okay. He sat down. He wanted to believe that everyone he’d met that day would be okay, just like he wanted to believe that Lexi, Frank and their family would be okay, just like he had wanted to believe that his cousins and the friends he’d known for years–all of them gone now–would be okay. He laid back down, shut his eyes and drifted off to sleep once again.
To Be Continued
Link to Chapter III: Shadow Folk