Sunday Archive: In This Darkness, part two
The woman paused for a moment, biting her lower lip. She was expressionless for only a few seconds before her face broke into a huge smile. She laughed and McGavin simply stared, numbed. At first, her laughter sounded like crystal falling in a dream, but he detected a harsher, deeper note. As if the crystal were shattering and falling to the floor of a deep well. She composed herself and fixed him with a clear gaze as a slow smile played across her lips, twitching slightly on the left corner of her mouth, then fading to a dark smirk. “It is yours no longer. Tonight, this is solace. A brief stop from a long journey. No need to upset yourself.” She watched for his reaction suspiciously, no hint of a smile now.
McGavin looked back into the party, feeling overwhelmed. “But…but how’d you get the power – ”
The woman snapped up straight, as if something suddenly became apparent to her and she didn’t like it one bit. She stared at McGavin with worry in her eyes, stared at him until he turned away, chilled.
“What’s your name?” she asked slowly.
“McGavin. Lance McGavin.” He looked back around at the party in dismay.
“I’m Melissa,” she said abruptly. She hesitated a moment, studying McGavin a little longer, then she handed her champagne glass to a nearby redhead and grabbed McGavin’s arm. “Come – ” she hissed in his ear, pulling him viciously toward the stairs. Melissa half-dragged him up the staircase to the second floor, but she didn’t stop there. She turned and pushed him into the stairwell to the next floor. He began to object as she pushed on his back and drove him up to the dark and deserted third floor. There, she picked one of the larger suites and led him inside, closing the door behind her and leaning against it.
“…the hell – ” McGavin spun around, pulling his shotgun up and aiming it at her belly. But Melissa took no notice. Unconcerned, she stepped up so that the barrel pressed against her body and glared at McGavin.
“I thought you were dead!” She paused, stepping back from the gun and looking off over McGavin’s shoulder. “I guess I should have known better.” She stared into middle space for a few beats while McGavin worked his mouth. “Yes, of course, I should have known.” She allowed a short burst of laughter and touched the back of her hand to her mouth.
McGavin finally regained control of himself. He found that he was able to say the only word bouncing around his head, “What?”
“You look very different. What happened?”
“We know each other?” McGavin asked, bewildered.
She shook her head, not an affirmation; she just wanted her question answered. “What happened to you?”
“I’ve been down in the shelter – ”
She nodded quickly, as if everything was clear now. “You look like hell, McGavin – ”
“- and there’s still a lot of wind left in this party.” she smiled disarmingly, then side-stepped into the bathroom. Almost as quickly, she stepped back out with a neatly pressed tuxedo on a hanger in her right hand. “Get cleaned up. Everything you need is on the sink. The night’s still young, Mr. McGavin.”
His hand trailed up to his face and he shook his head slowly.
She tossed the tuxedo onto the bed and looked at him sternly. “What?”
“The water’s out, lady. It’s been out for weeks.”
“Just like the power?” Melissa said brusquely as she flicked on the bathroom light.
“We have water…?”
“Yes,” Melissa blinked, irritated, “we have water.” She turned and left without saying anything more.
McGavin hesitated only for a heartbeat, then he leapt into the bathroom. Water. Hot water. After nearly a month, he stepped under the showerhead and let the water blast down and roll over his body. This was heaven. A pure ecstasy as his body drank in the water. Time – past and present – seemed simply to be a passing fad. A meaningless specter in this small bathroom. He was amazed by the water like a primitive, existing in a moment with no regrets, no fears, no questions. Just peace. He stood under that cleansing stream for what must have been an hour, and when he stepped out of the tub he found an almost carnal pleasure as the cool air bit into his wet skin and raised goose-bumps across his flesh. He shivered, running a fresh towel over himself and listening to the party below. The sounds of the party boomed through the walls and shook beneath McGavin’s feet. He smiled as he shaved and watched the lonely face in the mirror as if it weren’t his. The horrors of the past seven months now seemed forgotten in this hopeless illusion. That’s what all this was – had to be – an illusion. The dementia of a lonely man trapped in a makeshift fallout shelter. But why not play along? If this was madness and death, why not get the most from it?
Back in his days as the manager of this hotel, McGavin was always a hit with the women, and the women downstairs were calling him. The dark heart which had settled in his chest lifted and he hurriedly struggled into the tuxedo – he had a party to go to.
<i>A New Year</i>. McGavin wondered if there was hope, if there was something that was going to change when the sun rose in the morning – or maybe at the strike of midnight. Then he paused, his hands still tied up in the bow tie. He realized, the darkness rushing back to him, that Keaton had blown his head off on Christmas Eve. Now the suicide made sense when, at the time, McGavin had thought the poor man to be mad. They’d all died of that same cause: Loss. Regret. What role had they played in this horror? Why did they survive when their friends and loved ones died? The most common questions of the last seven months – the last five years. McGavin had heard survivors utter them again and again. If the creatures outside didn’t get you, the questions did. The feeling of such complete and absolute loss destroyed the mind and soul. McGavin had watched his little group of survivors through all the stages until they finally closed their eyes and just willed themselves to die. Then, one by one, he had dumped their bodies outside the shelter until he was alone.
But Keaton. McGavin finished his tie and straightened the jacket. Keaton had been more constructive, blasting the shotgun into his mouth. That one gunshot echoed in McGavin’s ears constantly, and the image still replayed itself in his sleep. That final look. That final, pleading gaze before the poor bastard turned his head into a fine, red mist. McGavin shuddered, stepping up to the window and looking out at his city. Why hadn’t he fallen to the pain? He had never asked the questions which killed because he had never had friends. McGavin didn’t care much for people, mainly because his job was caring for people. As a hotel manager, he spent every day servicing every simpering fool who crossed the threshold. On his downtime, he had pulled away from people, distanced himself. It was only natural. At the time it was a lonely existence. Now, he was damn proud for surviving.
But it was all different tonight. A tear – as alien as the smiling face in the mirror – inched down his now smooth cheek as he looked out at the cityscape.
The great city died with less drama than in the beginning. Gone now were the gunshots, the roving gangs of looters, the panic-swept streets as citizens fled from the terror. Gone now were the packs of dogs feeding on the corpses, and the monsters… The report of sniper-fire from the high roofs, a sound that had replaced the soft breathing of traffic, was gone. Gone now were the armored car clean-up squads, sweeping through the streets with bombs and machine guns.
The streets were dark and silent, the buildings empty sentinels guarding the last memories of a lost civilization. Ziggurats, steel and concrete pyramids, the clay bricks of the 20th Century, a layer of pottery soon to be engulfed by the earth. The city still burned though; fires set weeks ago still glowed an angry red-orange on the horizon, consuming block after block with their slow, monotonous crawl. McGavin stared at the fires, the funeral pyre of this once glorious city, for a long moment before he turned away with a lump in his throat. The party was still below, and whether he was insane or those people downstairs were insane, McGavin swore that he’d make the most of tonight.
He exploded into the hallway and strode to the stairwell. He felt less a madman with each step, cleaner with each step. For once, he felt good. This time, the alien smile actually hurt his face. Then the wrong feelings came back, the uncertainty. He detected the wrongness on a primal level. Poised at the head of the stairwell, he turned back and looked at one of the suites. A familiar feeling and smell came from that suite. The door stood slightly ajar and he was compelled to step up to it. That familiar scent was death.
Immediately, the animal in him cringed and told him to go away and leave it alone. The voyeur in him wanted to see, though. His smile faded as he pressed the door open slowly and stepped over the threshold into the suite. His eyes moved slowly over five bodies, lain out on the two queen-size beds in funereal postures. They seemed almost to be in repose and McGavin found the scene disturbingly peaceful. Their hands were crossed on their chests, weapons lain out beside them like in the Stone Age warrior burials he had read about. These five men were looters. The uniform was unmistakable: a mixture of leather-clad biker clothes and Armani suits, and all of them armed to the teeth. Bristling with guns and knives and bandoliers, these men could very well have been the ones who had tormented him and Keaton a week ago. Then McGavin noticed something. He pulled down the collar of one of the corpses and squinted at the wounds. A broken neck, the puffy skin shriveled somewhat but the marks still there. He bent over and examined the second looter and found the cause of death to be the same. Likewise with the other three.
McGavin stepped back, looking at the bodies curiously. These were surely the men who had tried to break into the shelter a week ago – perhaps even blockaded the lobby doors and made this hotel their home. Then they’d been killed. He looked around the room, then picked up a couple of the shotguns and pistols, smelling the barrels and checking the ammo. No shots fired, no signs of a struggle. So these guys had sat back peacefully and let someone snap their necks? Not likely. Something was wrong. Had somebody from the party done this? McGavin walked back into the hallway, concern and worry back in his eyes and his heart. He made his way downstairs slowly and stood on the last step, looking at the party with hard, cold eyes.
Then Melissa intercepted him, “You look marvelous!” she gushed, handing him a glass of champagne.
He tilted his head, keeping his eyes level with hers. “It’s all in the packaging…”
Melissa paused a moment, the smile playing in her eyes. The guilt playing in her eyes. She knew. He was startled to see an almost perverse delight cross her face, like this was some sort of game. Unnerved again, he meekly took her arm and stepped down off the stair into the party.