Three things slammed into Annie when she woke up. The first was her headache; the second, nausea; third, the realization of what she and Jason faced after today. The heavyweight trio pinned her to the dirty sheets and the idea of movement filled her joints with cement. If she remained perfectly still, perhaps it would all float away. Maybe someone else would have to hoist this weight.
Jason grunted next to her, then twitched, then groaned. She could feel the echo of her rusted discomfort rolling off him. The bed felt heavier as he woke up, like everything sinking in was adding more mass to him.
Annie took a deep breath, closed her eyes against the incipient vertigo, and turned on her side so she could drape an arm over Jason. Her poisonous insides sloshed and she pressed her face against his back, mashing her mouth closed so it couldn’t vomit.
“Fuck,” he muttered. “Your face is hot. It’s hot in here.” He tried to pull the covers down and knocked a half-full bottle of Bud off the nightstand. There was a thump and gurgle when it hit the carpet. The smell of warm beer rose.
“Didn’t need that,” she said into his skin. “Feel like I took a bath in it.”
“Me, too,” he said. “Tasted okay last night, though.”
“That was last night.”
Jason turned over. It was a halting, disjointed process that required rest stops. When he was done, Annie’s head lay on his chest. He plucked a soggy cigarette butt from her hair and tossed it on the carpet. “Jesus. We really got into it.”
Annie nodded minutely and her brain swam like a fetal pig in formaldehyde. “Had to send Gus off right. You know.”
He did. The pantry was stocked with enough dry goods for ten people to last a year. And enough booze to float a frat house for forty days and nights. Jason didn’t know who’d owned this house before, or why they’d abandoned it, but it wouldn’t be out of place on Doomsday Preppers: Alcoholics.
As more of the morning filled their dull senses they became aware – as they did every day – of the scratching outside. The windows were boarded up which muted both the daylight and the sound, but both were there. The sunshine was thin and anemic between the cracks. It didn’t fill the room any more than cottage cheese filled an overweight dieter. And the scratching was pitiful but insistent. Waxing. Waning. It would have been faint if it weren’t so overwhelming.
Jason felt Annie’s fingernails dig into his chest. She didn’t realize it but they kept perfect time with the clawing at the window. The rhythm was insidious; it governed the cadence of their speech, their steps through the house, even the tempo of their lovemaking.
“We have to get up,” Jason said.
Annie’s nails dug deeper. “I can’t. Can’t do it again. After today, it’s just…”
“I know. But we still have to do it.”
Her nails clutched and relaxed. Clutched and relaxed. “We’ll never get out of here,” she whispered. “Not just the two of us. If we couldn’t do it before, we’re fucked now.”
“It doesn’t matter. We promised to take care of these situations. One and all.”
Her lips peeled back from her teeth. “Yeah. And we’re almost down to one. Why bother?”
“Because we said we would. We promised.”
“Right. A roomful of us promised. Have you seen that room lately?”
Jason rolled away from her. She crashed to the covers like the tide on a beach. “Don’t,” she said, reaching out and touching him. “Please.”
His back was hard. “We have to.” The words pulsed in time to the clawing.
“Does it have to be right now? We can’t be together any longer?”
She felt him tug an arm from under the covers. He was looking at his watch. “Soon. You know how it works.”
She did. It was the same every time. Every. Single. Time. She pulled back from him like the moon was drawing her away. “Twenty-four hours from start to finish. How can it be so precise?”
Jason shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“Shouldn’t it? Maybe we could figure out how to stop it if we knew why – “
“We haven’t yet. And we’ve had plenty of chances.”
The clawing continued at the window.
Annie lay on her back not looking at Jason. “It was just a scratch.”
He rolled back over and put his arms around her. “I know.”
“It could have been one of us.”
“Someday it is going to be one of us.”
Jason didn’t say anything because there wasn’t anything to say. Assuring Annie they’d be fine was pointless. They probably wouldn’t be fine. No one else was.
He kissed Annie’s greasy hair and swung out of bed. The hangover wobbled him but he stayed upright. The clothes on the floor went back on his body and he walked out of the bedroom.
Annie sat up. It was a bad idea. Felt like it would take her another thirty minutes to get out of bed and dressed. Gus might not have thirty minutes.
She put her feet carefully on the floor and let her agitated hangover settle into her. When she stood up, it sank twisted fishhooks into her brain and belly. She ran for the bathroom and puked into the puke bucket. The smell of the piss bucket next to it didn’t help much.
When she was done, she felt a little better. Lighter. Hollowed out. She put her clothes on and went to the living room.
Gus and Jason were sitting together on the couch. There were beer bottles and shot glasses and full ashtrays scattered everywhere. Annie kept her eyes on them so she wouldn’t have to look at Gus. Scratching sounds came from the big boarded-up picture window.
“Hi, Annie,” Gus said.
She nodded at him, her throat tight.
“I can’t believe you’re getting out of helping us clean this up,” Jason said.
Gus laughed. It sounded real to Annie and she couldn’t understand it. Had never understood how people could joke right up to the last minute.
“I can’t help but feel partly responsible for the mess,” Gus said. Now Jason laughed.
Idiots, she thought.
Gus looked terrible. She and Jason were both addled by hangovers but Gus was stamped with something deeper. It was impossible to tell where the hangover ended and the infection began. He was pale and sweaty. His hands shook and the long scratch on his right arm was every unhealthy color in the world. Black fluid seeped out of it and Annie could smell the reek of decay across the room. Both of his eyes were sunken, like his febrile brain was pulling them backward.
Annie sat down on a chair and noticed that Gus was drinking a beer. “Urh. How the hell can you do that? I’ll never drink again.”
“She says that every time,” Jason said.
Gus smiled. Bright red blood outlined his teeth. “It takes the edge off. Plus, I don’t have much on my calendar today.”
They both laughed at that. Annie thought her head would explode if they kept it up. Gus took another drink of beer, a good long pull, and her stomach had a small seizure. He set the empty bottle down on the coffee table next to a dozen others.
“You ready?” He was looking at Jason.
Jason nodded. “Are you?”
A trickle of blood fell from Gus’ left eye. “I certainly fucking am. Matter of fact, let’s hurry the fuck up.” He scratched at his scratch and it yawned open, spilling out sludgy blackness.
Both of them stood. They turned to look at Annie. She was crying and trying to fold herself up into invisibility.
“Annie,” Gus said, “you are a truly incredible chick. Please try to keep this asshole alive for a few more months.” He nudged Jason but this time Jason barely smiled.
Annie stared up at him, tears dripping down her face. She tried to smile but her mouth was locked in place. She wanted to say something witty but her throat was an icicle.
Gus’ smile was gentle. “Don’t get up, babe,” he said softly. “We probably shouldn’t hug anyway.”
That surprised a wet, broken laugh out of her. It vanished as soon as it left and her mouth and throat clamped back down in trembling wait.
“There it was,” Gus said. “That’s all I needed.” He and Jason walked into the kitchen. A moment later she heard the door to the garage open. Then shut.
Annie got up and stumbled over to where Gus had been sitting on the couch. She sank down on his spot and put her face in her hands. Even over her sobs she could hear the scratching. There was only one thing that made it stop, and even then only for a minute.
A monstrous gunshot roared in the garage. The scratching faltered ceased. Annie cried quietly in blessed peace for forty-five seconds. Then the scratching began again, louder, more frantic this time. She could hear the moans behind it.
-Brent R. Oliver