A sudden gust of wind tears through the empty bowels of the schoolhouse, whisking leaves and loose papers from their resting place along the bespeckled tiles, scattering them throughout the desolate halls.
All that noise, that horrible rustling, it would’ve stirred me from my slumber if I’d been able to sleep.
Nowadays, it appears sleep is a luxury only afforded to the dead.
How long had I been hiding here? A few days? Weeks? It might as well have been years. The idea of time itself seems almost abstract at this point.
As I peel back the cocoon of blankets and towels from the makeshift pallet, I catch sight of the papers fluttering past the dusty classroom window, the lot of them taking to the sky as if thrown by the ghosts of the building’s former occupants.
My heartbeat bleeds into my ears, and I twitch in sync its every beat.
Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub.
I rub my eyes with the back of my knuckles, feeling the deep circles worn underneath. What a sight I must be! Oh, Mom would have a field day, the prim and proper lady that she’d been.
“Kendra, march right back up those stairs and excavate my daughter out from underneath all that grime!” she’d have said.
I can almost hear it now.
All those times I’d spent hidden away in my room, distancing myself from the lot of them.
Loud, intrusive, constantly underfoot. An introvert’s worst nightmare in every sense of the word. Now I miss them. Me, of all people, longing for all of their awful racket!
Life can be a little heavy-handed sometimes.
While lying there, trying to picture my mother’s face, a chill tumbles down my spine.
That noise, those papers, it’s being caused by wind.
If there’s wind getting inside, then there’s been a breach.
They could be inside, and if that’s the case, I’m a goner, just like the rest of my family.
There will be no sleep tonight, not until I know that it’s safe.
The night air nips at my bare arms as I crawl out from underneath that hodgepodge of bedding, sending more shivers along my frame.
Another sorrowful wail races down the school’s vacant halls, sending the freshly settled debris skyward once more. I watch them rain down and that incessant beating returns to my ears once more.
Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub.
What remains of my t-shirt offers me no comfort against this temperature, nor do the remnants of my tattered capris. It had been a cute outfit at one point, more befitting a different season. A different time.
My hair, once buzzed to my scalp, has since begun sprouting up once again. Brown, kinky bushes help fend off some of the nipping air.
Thankfully, I still have my trusty flannel, though it’s become a necessity rather than an accessory at this point.
I pull the garment free from my other blankets and slip it on, its baggy blue fabric hanging off me like a cloak.
If I would’ve known society was about to collapse, I’d have snagged some warmer garments. What I’d give for an ugly ass pair of sweat pants right now. They would feel heavenly.
The only thing that’s been of any use to me since I’ve been on my own is my trusty backpack, its dirty black canvas packed to the brim with all the odds and ends I’ve scavenged since the day those things first appeared in my town.
The little band pins covering the front pouch of the bookbag are scuffed and covered in dust, just like the rest of me. They remind me of what was, that life wasn’t always like this.
I dig inside the bag for a minute, rooting past the remnants of my water until my fingertips feel the familiar grip of my camping ax. I grab hold of the tool, carefully pulling it free from the bag before securing it to my belt by its sheath.
Finding that ax had been the most fortuitous part of this endeavor. Someone had imbedded it in the corpse of a Walmart employee when I came across it, but who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth?
The old classroom that’s been my home during this nightmare looks less like a place of learning and more like the inside of a forgotten storage container.
Stacks of desks and chairs line the walls of the room, obscuring the various posters still hanging from their tacks. One poster that is partially visible features a small kitten clinging to the limb of a tree, with the words: ‘hang in there’ displayed prominently beneath it.
I’m trying kitty. I’m trying.
The floor in here isn’t much cleaner than any of the other hallways, I’d done what I could to sweep up the leaves and papers underneath the chairs to keep things from scattering around so much, but there’s only so much I could do with my tank running on empty.
Forcing myself to my feet, my eyes gaze longingly at the empty cans of treat meat and ravioli piled up in the corner next to my pallet while slipping on my bag. My stomach gurgles something fierce, but I ignore its cries as best I can.
I’ll have plenty of time to be hungry if I survive the night.
Removing the chair I’d stuffed underneath the door handle the day before, I carefully set it to the side while letting the heavy door swing open in front of me. The door bounces quietly against the doorstop with several dull thuds as I gnaw on my lower lip, readying myself for what is coming.
A sharp breath.
A hard swallow.
I force myself forward into the unknown.
The hallway, like the rest of the school, is desolate, save for the piles of papers, trash and refuse left behind during the evacuation. Shadows cling to the cinderblock walls, hiding from the stream of moonlight pouring in from the overhead sunroof.
Rows of lockers surround me on all sides, their doors all ajar, waving at me like old friends as another powerful gust of wind rips through the corridor.
My trembling fists rattle against my wrists as I continue ahead towards the nearby entrance. A part of me prays under my breath, some long-repressed prayer from my time at Sunday School, but God’s name catches in my arid throat. I spit it out as I crouch down, keeping to the wall as the length of lockers finally run out.
Making my way without making noise isn’t an easy feat. The dull off-white tiles are a roving minefield of trash, heaps of it slide towards me with each additional gust.
I twist and turn like a grungy ballerina while attempting to avoid the various plastic pitfalls. Squadrons of papers do flybys past my face as I duck and twirl. I feel the life seeping from my body as I spend what little energy I have left on this horrific dance.
I slide ahead towards an overturned table by the vestibule, my calves squeaking as I scoot on the floor and out of sight. I take another breath and glance towards the entrance.
The doors I’d lovingly secured with lock and chain are now warped against their metal frames, each of them bent in as if they’d been nothing but tinfoil.
Glittering beneath them were mounds of shattered glass, the piles gleaming in the light of the full moon.
Now I’m sure I am not alone.
Behind me, near the front office, I see a conglomeration of shadows pooling towards the back wall, whipping about like stalks of cattails in a field.
Reaching back towards my bag, I fish a small bouncy ball free from its side pocket, my eyes never leaving the massive figure in front of me. With trembling lips, I give the ball a quick kiss before hurling it down the hallway.
The second it clatters against those friendly lockers, I burst ahead, making a break for the door with all the effort my gaunt frame can muster.
At first, I hear the creature roaring behind me, its guttural screech pairing with the telltale sounds of shattering glass crunching beneath its claws, but that racket is nothing compared to the sound of my heartbeat, the one noise reminding me I’m still alive.
In this moment, as I leap towards the concrete steps leading towards the adjacent field, I am grateful for the reminder.
Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub.