They felt as though they were descending into the bowels of hell itself.
The stairwell was dark and pungent with the odors of apocalypse. Gruesome corpses in varying stages of decay could be glimpsed only quickly (for which they were better off) in the shaky halogen beams of their flashlights and the vibrant pink sparkle of freshly lit road flares.
Raymondo held Anna close. She was in his arms, clinging on for dear life, burying her gas masked face into his chest hard, to keep the horrors unseen. Her mind instinctually demanded now that she keep some shred of her forcibly forsaken childhood innocence. In his other hand, Raymondo carried a 9 mm. His finger was on the trigger, his adrenaline high. Ready for flick-knife action, he stayed in the center of their small survivalist army, figuring it safest for the girl. Chelsea and Angel were in the front, semi-automatics ready, Angel with a glowing hot flare extended out in her hand. Dexi headed up the back. They all kept darting their eyes everywhere.
Unblossomed vulvic bulbs stared right back at them like fetal-flora lions in wait.
The strange plants had grown up now into the higher floors of the building, their thick vines having penetrated the concrete and red brick structure at various points. The lower they descended, the more damage could be seen on the building, and the plants now inside were growing quite hearty and healthy, feeding themselves on the apparent never-ending supply of infected human husks and suicide corpses.
Around the twelfth level stairwell, they could see the voluminous tangle of varicose vagina vines netting the steps, creeping out from those ever expanding cracks in the cheap walls. They clung to every last thing with their parasitic, chlorophyl grip.
The group moved quietly, with extreme caution. They searched every shadow carefully, watched for random vines and patches of human skin slippage on the stairs and floor. They watched in near complete silence for those awful wrigglers, and for any other possible survivors meaning to deliver harmful intent, or the raving looney N.E.C.R.O.-infected.
But, for as quietly and cautiously as they were proceeding, the sharp hiss of the magnesium sulfate pink road flare sparkle showers certainly hindered the group's ability to hear anything other than that hissing sound.
Except for Raymondo. His sharp ears were picking up another sound, just below the hissing, but increasing slowly in intensity. He could hear the frantic chittering of rats echoing from not too far away.
“STOP,” Raymondo barked quietly, holding his gun hand out in a halting manner and clutching Anna tighter. “Listen.”
They all came to a grinding halt. All eyes, all ears, all attentions were on every dark spot and leering shadow.
“We gotta keep moving,” Dexi pointed out. “We can’t just stand here like fucking bait. Lets be extra alert, ‘K?” Her voice was a mere hush, only slightly louder than the flickering flares, and it seemed to have an edge to it that even she noticed, yet didn’t intend. She knew that her nerves weren’t jangled any worse than anyone else’s.
“Yeah, move slow, stay alert, ready for anything.” Raymondo kept his gun at the ready and held the child tight.
They proceeded, their footsteps no louder than cautious, light shuffles. The road flares, incessantly hissing...the sound was now almost unnoticeable. The frantic chittering, however, seemed to be growing slowly louder, until it was the only sound they could hear.
Angel came to a complete standstill, Raymondo bumping into her, and Dexi into him. “I can’t do this,” she whimpered, her voice shaking and her breathing ragged. “I can’t.”
Raymondo began to gently speak to his terror-stricken sister. “Angel, Sis...we’re gonna be OK, huh? You got me here, Dexi, Chelsea and the little one. Just look ahead, hold onto your girl there, and go forward.”
But she stood, shaking visibly in the frizzy pink light of the ever hissing flares, her face frozen with panic. The odd shadows cast upon her features from the twitching sparkle light only served to make her look half insane, like some sad and forlorn she-demon that had just given up on everything.
Chelsea’s frazzled nerves and rushing adrenaline had greatly affected her normally nurturing-sweet, tough girl demeanor, eliminating the nurturing and the sweet. She was in no mood for Angel’s drama queen insecurity act. She turned to her near catatonic, blubbering wife. “Angel, stop it. C’mon, NOW.”
Angel stared at her, mouth agape and wordless, eyes filling rapidly with hysterical vacancy. “I CAN’T,” she whimper-spat out to Chelsea.
It appeared as though Angel’s mind was checking out. She seemed wobbly, and leaned over to the railing, clutching on tight. The sparkling road flare slipped from her hands and dropped down the center of the stairwell, briefly lighting the infinite seeming murk they had to descend to escape from the building and out into...well, they could only guess.
The chittering was still growing louder.
“Angel, please, c’mon! We HAVE to get out of here, baby!” Chelsea pleaded, her own self now being overcome with panic, fight or flight taking a total sensory effect.
Hastily, Chelsea panic-grabbed her wife’s free arm, which still held onto the gun, and tried to pull the fear-paralyzed woman back up to her feet, and down the stairs. But her unexpected and quick pull on Angel’s arm caused the terrified girl to jump with a startle, the reflex maneuvers clinching every muscle down in her body tight. Including her trigger finger.
The weapon fired, popping Chelsea hard in the shoulder at point-blank range. The bullet entered, went through, and shattered out the back of her shoulder blade, causing the squat cinder block of a woman to howl in agony and lose her footing, tumbling down the ten stairs to the bottom of the next stairwell.
Chelsea lay moaning, her body shot and broken, her vision blurry and her head dazed with pain. She looked around, tried to move, and could hear the sound of boots rushing down the stairs toward her. She could vaguely make out a human shadow in the greatly reduced light of the one flare and flashlight.
She could also tell when they, for whatever reason, jumped back quick. The sound of rushing boots stopped of a sudden.
She finally lost sight of the shape completely, when another form, large and murky, engulfed her entire frame of vision. All she could hear was loud squeaking, which soon enough muffled out as something warm, smelly and furry engulfed her head.
Dexi, Angel, and Raymondo watched in helpless horror as Chelsea disappeared beneath a sea of the vile, infected rats. There was nothing they could do as the awful little beasts bit and scratched, mauled and chewed at the disoriented and half-dead woman. Nothing they could do as she was carried down into the darkness of the lower floors.
Anna wailed through her mask, Raymondo holding her head against his chest with force, so that she could not look and see, accidentally or on purpose.
He also began to sternly speak to his sister, trying to knock her out of the funk. At least enough to get her mobile, to get her to move. But, deep in his gut, he knew she was done. “Angel! Angel! Get up now, baby! Now, move it!”
She only sat on the stairs blank faced, staring deep into the darkness into which this most vile of vermin had pulled her wife down to feast triumphantly in the great empty. Unblinking catatonia had consumed her waking being. Angel had become oblivious to all around her, including the dog-sized rat that was barreling up the stairs toward her, all red-glow eyes and drooling, fanged chitter-teeth.
Raymondo was right behind his sister, but not quick enough. He hoped that Angel didn’t feel the literal rat-bastard tear its jagged and filthy fangs into her throat, as it lunged at her neck. She made no sound as it happened, made no flinching movement or defensive gestures to try and thwart the rodent’s attack.
Angel’s body only fell forward and collapsed down the stairs after he placed his 9 mm to the back of her skull and pulled the trigger. The force of the bullet exiting her head blew the rat, and her face, clean off. He could, if only for a moment, see clear through her skull before she rolled limp and lifeless down into the dark herself.
Anna continued to wail, and Raymondo continued to hold her tight and tell her that it was okay, shushing to the best of his capacity. He wanted to cry, he wanted to tantrum, to rage, or at the very least, get high. Too much stress. But he knew that he had to press on, for the girl. For Dexi.
She wanted to grab him, Dexi did, and the child, too. She wanted, needed to hold them close and tight, to cry with them. Cry together. But she knew also to keep the sentimentality at bay, hard as that would be. No time for emotion. She wanted to vomit, and almost did so, when she noticed the rampaging horde of enormous, filthy rats, every last one of them starved and shrieking their shrill, rodent-squeak death song.
Feeling like something had just brushed against her leg, Dexi turned quickly, flare extended. She squinted her eyes, nervously inspecting every nook and cranny with taut and careful inspection.
Raising the child higher up, Raymondo began to pop off hopeful shots at the small herd of charging vectors.
Whatever had bumped Dexi now seemed to knock at her arm, sending the pink flame-spewing road flare out of her grasp and into the darkness below. Just like the last one. Only this time, Dexi had caught sight of it as it twirled in sparkling magnesium trails into the bowels of the building. She watched the phosphorescent light reflect in sickening glitters off the thousands of pairs of glassy little eyes that seemed to haunt every square inch of blackness on the way down.
They had now been thrown into complete darkness.
Raymondo and Dexi stood back to back in the claustrophobic dark. The child continued to wail, to sob uncontrollably, involuntarily emptying her bladder all over Raymondo’s shirt. He could feel the rats at his feet, clawing at his pant legs and scurrying over his boots. Like a man possessed, he began to stomp down hard, squashing the vermin with every crunch down, Simultaneously he was firing off shots, doing his best to fight off shock delirium, into the dark before him, partially for light and partially out of the stress and helplessness of not knowing what else to do.
Dexi heard a struggled, shuffling sound, and felt Raymondo move from her back. The gunfire stopped. Anna’s crying stopped. She stood alone in the impenetrable blackness, no sound but her own racing heartbeat, throbbing hard in every pulse-point in her body. She could still feel the rats scurrying over her feet, trying to latch on and climb her pant legs.
Dire dread enveloped her physical and emotional being. It was making her thighs and legs cold and numb. She called out Raymondo’s name, Anna’s name. No response. Just the chittering and tittering of the rodents.
Another bump, this one from behind. And another, harder, to the lower back. Dexi turned and turned, bumping into walls, feeling dizzy and fearing she might twist herself around right down the stairs. She called out again and again for the child, for Raymondo.
One more shove to the back, the kidneys, and she felt her arms clasped back behind her, painful and tight. Then, her hair being yanked, her head being thrust around. She was pulled off to the side, felt her body slam against a doorway.
Into the eleventh-level darkness, she felt herself be taken.
She was dragged off from behind. Just before she heard the door slam, Dexi swore that she could hear gunfire, echoing throughout the building, coming from one of the lower floors. It sounded like a 9 mm.
Come on back Monday, March 29,
for SOME KIND OF HATE
as WAITING FOR THE END skids into its final week.
Meanwhile, be sure to return tomorrow for the worldwide debut of
THE WAY TO ALEXANDRIA
by John Shirley