Mama was crying.
Everyone was crying.
Outside was loud but inside was louder. It sounded like the movies Sister used to watch during Halloween. Yelling and sobbing and trembling. All the types of sadness.
No one moved from their homes on the ground. I guess they thought if they got up they’d be back outside. We all just huddled there in little bundles, shivering to the beat of grief.
I tried to look around more, to see if I could find anyone I knew, to see if I could find Father and Sister, but Mama pushed me back down. Her skin was white but her eyes were red. Her long hair was stuck to her face and shoulders. Like snakes, it looked like black slimy snakes on her face. I must have had them too, only stuck there by the rain though, I hadn’t cried yet.
Mama shook so hard it felt like another earthquake was already here. My arm hurt from her hands but I didn’t say anything. I just let her hug me tight into her wet pajamas. They were yellow with polka dots, my favorite.
At some point someone must have gotten off the floor because the next time I looked up there was a group of five adults standing together in a corner. I recognized two men. They were the ones that closed the door.
The five discussed something quietly. At least it seemed quiet compared to the way everything else was screaming. They stood by a computer. The screen was turned away but I could tell it was important by the way they were leaning in now. I watched them watch it for a long time. Every once in a while they would lean in closer, covering their faces, crossing their chests, yelling at the screen, gripping the table, biting their nails, but then something would happen and they would all relax, crying and hugging one another. This happened several times before I found out what they were watching. Before we all found out what they were watching. Because the last time they leaned in and covered and crossed and yelled and gripped and bit, it wasn’t enough to keep the piece of debris out of the air pump.
One of them screamed. One of them punched the concrete wall. One of them fell to the ground crying. One of them looked to the ceiling and started chanting. One of them silently stared at the screen.
By this time people were starting to pay more attention. They came over to see what was going on. Apparently whatever was on the computer wasn’t self explanatory because only after they got the silent one to open his mouth did they share his horror.
Word slowly began to spread through the crowd. Mama finally looked up. “Screwed” “doomed” “over” “fucked.” That was what everyone was saying. Mostly the last one. Mama would’ve covered my ears if we’d been anywhere else.
Chaos ensued. People were shouting and pushing to see the computer. They yelled at the five to explain what the hell was going on. The sobbing was more urgent now, not just sad but scared again. Everyone was up and out of their homes on the ground. Mama pulled us to a wall away from the computer so we wouldn’t get trampled.
“Hey, everyone listen to me.” It was one of the men who had closed the door. The one who had gripped the table while watching the screen and stood still when he found out we were “fucked”.
“Listen. Everyone listen.” He’d gotten up on the computer desk so everyone could see him. He was soaked like the rest of us, and in his pajamas. He was tall but not very old, maybe in his mid twenties. Not much older than Sister.
“As you’ve probably heard by now” he said, his voice shaking, “a piece of metal has been lodged into the air pipe.” For the first time, the room was quiet enough to hear the strength of the storm outside. I tried not to listen to the unsettling sounds outside.
“The grate protecting it was displaced by the crowd outside.” The crowd outside. They must have tried to crawl in. Or they just wanted to take us down with them. Revenge for closing the door, I guess.
“The metal is blocking a large part of the airway” he paused. “The computer says we will only have healthy levels for another 2 hours.”
Whispers. Cries. Shouts. They were more subdued than before, though. Everyone was still focused on the man.
“Is there a way to fix it?” Someone yelled desperately from the crowd.
The man on the desk took a minute to answer. He looked down at the other four computer watchers before saying, “yes, but not from in here. Someone would have to go outside and extract the piece. The pipe isn’t close to the entrance… they wouldn’t make it back in time.
More whispers. We all knew someone would have to die. We all knew it wouldn't be us.
“I have 3 children” said a man standing beside us “I have 3 children I can’t go.”
A woman in front of us shouted “I’m a doctor. I have a PHD. I can’t go, I can be useful.”
“I’m weak, I wouldn’t be able to pull out the piece of metal anyway,” said someone else.
Everyone was yelling their excuses, their reasons why they should get to stay, to keep living. That was until they realized they could volunteer each other.
The fighting started all at once. Mama wiped the snakes from her face and covered her ears. There were probably 100 people in that room and it seemed like they were all shouting but us. The man with the three kids was now in a screaming match with a woman who thought he should be the sacrifice. She saw him push over two kids to get in here. He denied it but the way he said it wouldn’t convince anyone.
“You should go!” Someone from the crowd was pointing up at the man on the desk. “If you made yourself in charge, then you should be the one to do the tough job.” People agreed with that. It didn’t make sense to me, to kill the one person that had shown any leadership so far, but it wasn’t them that was dying so the sheep went along. He tried to stop them but he was pulled off the desk. He fought, yelled, and kicked, but there were too many of them to take on alone.
“If you put me out there,” he yelled from inside the mob, “I won’t do it. I won’t!”
“Yes you will.” The man speaking was wearing a long raincoat, one of the only people here who had anything but wet pajamas. He was the other who’d helped close the door less than an hour ago. He was also one of the five who’d been watching the computer. I’d seen the two hug each other only 10 minutes before. Now one was about to condemn the other to death. “You will” he said, “because you’re gonna die anyway so might as well save us while you're doing it.”
Mama covered my eyes. The thought was there, but I could still see through the gap in her fingers. His yelling was so desperate. It was just like it sounded when they’d closed the door. The door they were about to open again.
The crowd was right by it now. There were at least six different people holding the man still. They were about to lift the heavy bar holding the door in place when a voice came from the computer desk.
“Hey!” His voice wasn’t loud, but it was as strong as ice. The people by the door couldn’t hear him over everything going on. I turned my focus back toward the door, forgetting about it, until an enormous whooshing sound drew my attention back to the desk.
Everyone stopped what they were doing. The mob must have lost its grip on the tall man because he burst away from the door, sprinting to an open area and holding his left arm. He was panting hard and his eyes were things I hoped to never see again. Only after he caught his breath did he join the rest of us in looking up at the white cloud that now engulfed the computer’s corner.
His hair was a mess. It was mid length and scraggly. He wasn’t tall, he wasn’t strong, he was perfectly average looking. The slimy snakes covered his face too, just like me and Mama, just like all of us. In his hands he held a fire extinguisher. He threw it to the ground and stared down the 99 people who were finally giving him their attention.
“You fucking bastards” he said, venom spitting from his mouth. I recoiled at the pure hate in his voice.
“You mother fucking bastards think you have something to live for, but you don’t.” He pointed a shaking finger at the man who’d yelled about having three kids.
“You think you’re a father” he spat on the ground “your kids aren’t here are they” he paused looking at the man, watching him break. “They aren’t here. You know they’re dead. You’re no father anymore.”
I heard a small thunk and saw the man drop to his knees. The horrid finger turned to its next victim.
“And you.” He now pointed at the man with the raincoat. The disgust in the viper’s voice made me shift behind mama. Her hands were back on my arm and my hands covered my face. I needed to protect myself from that finger.
“You shut the door. You shut the fucking door. I just wanted to remind you.” The man stood still, looking up at that horrible hand. “And you dragged your own goddamn brother to that fucking door without a single hesitation. If I were you I’d want to die just to avoid the shame.”
I looked at the tall man now sprawled against a wall, then back to Raincoat who had tears running down his face. They did look similar, I realized. It made me want to throw up.
It was time for the finger to move again.
“You.” It landed on an old woman. She was one of the five who had been watching the computer. The one who had crossed herself and prayed while the world exploded around her. She was doing the same now, off in an open section of the floor. On her knees with head down and hands together, she could have been at a church. If she wants soaking wet in a nightgown, of course.
“You think you can solve this by asking a boy in the sky for help!” Spit flew from his mouth. Even though she was 15 feet away I could have sworn a fleck reached her face. She didn’t look up from her prayer. Her lips moved quickly and silently. I wish I could hear what she was saying.
“Look at me!” The man’s eyes bulged and the table shook as he stomped his feet. “Goddammit look at me!” She took a moment to finish her prayer, then, slowly, lifted her head to face him. “You’re a goddamn idiot for thinking that’ll work for you. You’re a fucking idiot! Do you think a god you’ll let this happen! Do you think he would let everyone we love die, let everything we know get destroyed!”
The woman looked at him. She stayed firmly where she was, eyes stubborn and sad.
“You’re all idiots” the man said “You’re all idiots for thinking there’s anything left to live for.” His whole body shook now. Tears were flooding from his eyes, snot was streaming out his nose and into his mouth. He looked like a madman. He was a madman. Mama hugged me tighter and I moved farther behind her.
“When we were running here, I thought they were behind me.” He let out a sob. “I thought they were behind me but when I turned around they were gone. I should have stayed out and looked for them. I should have stayed but I went inside instead.” The last word muffled as he brought his hands to his face and bawled.
He stumbled off the desk, half blinded by tears and half by loss. No one said a word, but they all made a wide path for him as he approached the door.
He stood facing it for a long time, shaking and gasping. We all watched in silence from our places scattered sitting and standing throughout the room. His breathing eventually slowed. He wiped his face and turned to us. His face was set, calmer than I had ever seen it.
“All you have to do is reach in the pipe and take out the piece of metal. It will be about a minute walk left out the door.” The voice came from the tall man who was now standing, leaning heavily against the wall. “And move the grate back… if you have time”
“Ok” his face was still as death. “Ok” he turned around to face the door and then, changing his mind, turned back towards us.
“Everyone stand up.” We obeyed. For the first time his voice was soft. “My name is Alex Bennett. Remember me, ok?” We all nodded. A tear, the first one that night, finally rolled down my cheek. He looked toward the old woman, now standing and facing him. “You pray for me. You pray for me as hard as you fucking can.” She nodded.
With that he lifted the bar locking the door, pried the heavy thing open, and stepped into the darkness.
Someone pulled the door shut and locked it behind Alex. We silently walked over to the computer. Because I was small, I could squeeze into the front of the crowd. The computer showed the outside of the bunker we were in. There must have been security cameras. I could clearly see the air pipe and a piece of something lodged inside, blown there by the storm winds, probably from a building or a car. Everyone was silent except for the old woman who was chanting verses. I would have listened to the words, but as Alex was approaching the pipe and I was transfixed. His dark figure reached into the tube, pulling on the metal until it came loose. He tossed it to the side and stumbled out of frame. I held my breath. When he came back he had the grate in his hands, but something was different. His left leg was… wrong. It was shorter than it had been before. Shorter and it was now curved. A tentacle, I realized. He started to heft the grate back onto the pipe, but his arms were changing too. One was already shrinking. With one last shove from his good arm, Alex managed to get it back into place. I heard some sighs of relief, but my breath was still trapped in my lungs.
All he could do was lay there and all we could do was watch. Within 30 seconds all of his limbs were replaced with flopping tentacles. His dark body was writhing on the ground. I tried not to think of Father and Sister, who I had since accepted were not here with me and Mama. We all watched as his body shrank and the tentacles grew. They consumed him, became him, until he had become something else entirely. It slithered away into the dark. He was gone. Two more tears fell from my face, this time for my family.
The crowd slowly dispersed. Only me and the old woman stayed where we were. Mama came over and hugged me but I didn't move.
“He saved us, didn't he,” I said, letting my tears flow. “ And that's what happened to Father and Sister, isn't it.” Mama squeezed her lips tight and nodded, pulling me in closer. I hugged her yellow pajamas tight.