From his safe cover in the rafters, peeking through the cracks in the floorboards, Henry could see everything that was happening to the two miserable individuals below him. He was almost tearing from the shock, the pity and the fear.
The father had attempted to fight. He had a wrenched floorboard which he swung around in the air, and he screamed and shouted profanities at the crowd of people tottering towards him. His daughter had her back against the wall, eyes red from tears and exhaustion.
The crowd, with their sky-blue eyes and blank smiles, ignored his display of aggression completely, walking towards him as children would towards some toy of interest. One of the lunatics, a middle-aged man, walked towards him in a dopey smile, eager to touch him, and father swung the floor board hard against his temple. The board cracked, and the lunatic fell to the ground in a heap, still smiling lifelessly. The crowd pressured them in further, smiling, cajoling, singing songs.
The next two or three lunatics shambled forward, and one of them was an old lady whom the man did not have the heart to strike. Henry could see him, could feel him faltering. His half-hearted swings, now dampened by the shock of having just potentially killed another human being, no longer kept the crowd at bay, and soon, he was being touched and grabbed by the front line of the surging crowd. Henry could hear him swearing, then gibbering, then losing his mental faculties as his sky-eyed ’assailants’ seemed to erase his sanity with their touch alone. The more they touched him, the more he lost his mind, and the more he seemed to tolerate their strange, soothing touch.
The daughter, who was initially heaving with sobs, was now clutching her tear-streaked face in stony silence. She simply stared at the retardation of her own father, her last and only hope turn into one of the crowd, and she knew that their struggle was over. When the crowd moved on to her, she did not even have the will to resist. Shivering, with her eyes shut, she let them place their hands all over her. She muttered something in a shaking breath that could have been a prayer, or an apology.
And when she opened her eyes after a minute, her eyes were sky-blue, and her smile was the purest of sunshine. Her father, now sitting up from the floor, shared that same smile, with those same eyes. The blood and tears that covered their clothes and faces now looked so out of place on them, they might as well been prop art.
Henry ran through the half-flooded corridor, sunlight streaming down at him from the caved holes in the ceiling. He could hear birds chirping high up in the sky, and he wished wretchedly for a pair of wings to escape this town.
But where could those wings take him? Who could he turn to? As far as he knew, everyone he had met had lost their minds completely, became walking mockeries of their former selves. He could be one of the last sane individuals left in the country for all he knew.
Water sloshes against his mud-caked shoes as he stumbles to a stop against a pillar, clutching his chest. His sides hurt from all the running, and he turns behind to check if he has been followed.
No sound of sloshing footsteps, just the sound of his own breathing. No child-like voices, no sky-blue eyes, no blank smiles. He couldn’t tell which of the three frightens him the most. But if he had to choose..
He closes his eyes for a moment.
“Did you hear that? The sounds of happy boy feet.”
A male voice, as deep as a forty-year-old’s, but eerily child-like and overflowing with innocence.
Henry’s eyes snap open. He cranes his head up towards the source of the voice, and through the massive gaps in the collapsed ceilings, he sees silhouettes two floors above him.He could almost make out the whites of their smiles.
“Yes, I hear his pitter-patter. Do you think he’s a normal person?”
A woman’s voice this time. Like the man, her voice was also saturated with a childish delight.
“I want it to be a normal person. So that I can touch him and play with him!”
“You played with me already. It’s my turn to have a normal person!”
“But I still want to play! I STILL WANT TO PLAY!”
Henry plasters himself against the wall, nauseously edging slowly onwards, down the corridor, away from the source of the voices. He could feel himself shaking.
“I see him! I do! I do!“
“Are the stairs here? Where are the stairs?!”
Every muscle in Henry’s body screamed at him to move. Throwing cautions far into the winds, he picked himself up and ran. The deafening sounds of his splashing echoed throughout the cavernous corridor, as loud as rolling thunder.
He sprints into what used to be the central forum of the shopping arcade, and quickly scans his surroundings. Escalators, an indoor fountain. Deserted shops with broken glass. Pamphlets and possessions all over the floor.
He thunders down an escalator. He hears more footsteps in the floors above him.
“Look!” A voice laughs, so rich with goodness that it made Henry’s blood curl. “It’s a normal person! After him!”
“Yes, don’t let him reach the doors!”
“There he is! I want to play with him! I want to pet his head and touch his hair!”
Henry cursed his stupid luck at being spotted by another group of infectious lunatics. Now there are at least three groups on his tail. If they managed to surround him, he might as well kill himself right there and then.
He makes a sharp turn at the foot of the escalators, skidding on broken shards of glass. This must be the second or first floor. It was darker here. Could he outrun them? What if it was a dead end downstairs?
Think, Henry, think. He sprinted past a darkened fashion boutique store, and stopped. A momentary surge of shock gripped his heart as his eyes landed on the silhouettes of people, standing motionless in the darkness.
No, they were just mannequins. His heart resumed beating, and he quickly looked the area over.
Racks of fabric. He could hide in here for the moment. Yes, that would do. Hide until his pursuers ran past him, then exit safely from back where he came, maybe try to find another route down to the ground floor.
He dived into the shop, skirted towards the bulkiest clothes rack he could find, and pulls himself quickly into the depth of its contents. He was highly aware of his mud-stained shoes sticking out from under the rack, but what the hell.
He hid, and for the longest time since his first encounter with this ordeal, he wanted to simply curl up and sleep.
Footsteps pounded past him, and the corridor echoed with gleeful laughter and joy. Henry waited until the footsteps died down completely, and then waited some more.
After what seemed like ten or fifteen minutes, he felt a cramp. He shuffled awkwardly, waited a while, and stretched again.
All seemed quiet. He peeked out of the clothes rack, and nearly jumped out of his skin.
There was a silhouette at the door!
He felt his eyes readjust, and heaved a sigh of relief.
No, it was just another mannequin, standing erect by the display pane.
Henry looked around for anything useful to carry along, and found a pair of scissors and a wristwatch. He didn’t know how a pair of scissors could possibly save his life, but any sharp tool might prove to be useful later on.
He was about to leave the shop when a rustle from the storeroom behind him made his muscles freeze.
He felt trapped and suddenly very helpless. His fingers were wrapping around the scissors’ handle so hard, his knuckles could have popped from the sheer, unconscious intensity of effort. He didn’t dare to turn.
“Pl-Please listen to me,” it was a young girl’s voice, soft from the fear of being too loud, or from tiredness, or possibly both. “I’m not one of them. I.. I need help.”
Henry was still frozen in motion, like a deer on hair trigger. He felt very exposed, standing there in the middle of the store, between two unknown outcomes and a shitload of variables.
A young girl’s face peeked out from the edge of the storeroom door, her fingers trembling, her eyes dark with fright and wisps of hair over her face. “My mother left me in here. She went to get help.. I..” she choked on her own words, barely audible. “… I don’t know where she is now.”
Henry felt doomed. He just felt doomed. There should have been better words to describe his situation, but he didn’t know any. He cast a furtive look behind him, and after a moment, decided that the crowd of lunatics had probably found a way out and weren’t about to come back anytime soon. He climbed over a fallen rack over to the storeroom and crouched down behind the counter together with his newfound friend. She was a tiny thing, probably a primary-schooler ten years his junior.
He cracked his dry lips open to say something reassuring, but nothing came out. He thought about the father and daughter who succumbed to the strange, contagious lunacy, and he felt like screaming, sobbing and dying. He couldn’t meet her eyes. Had she lost her mum too? The way he had lost his parents and sister to the lunacy?
“I..” he swallowed. “I.. we need to get out of here,” he managed. Here was a fellow human being, still sane. Still human. He needed to save her, save them both. He hadn’t done anything to save his own friends and family, but it wasn’t too late to help this one.
The young girl stared at him for a moment, chin wrinkled, eyes bright with tears, and hugged him tightly, sobbing into his wet, dirt-stained shirt. Henry thought about the way that father had protected his daughter yet couldn’t bring himself to hurt others, and Henry felt his own eyes narrow with grim determination. Kill if need be, he wasn’t going to make that same mistake.
The two of them darted through the empty car park, watching left and right for any stray lunatics. As with Henry’s suggestion, they had outfitted themselves with long, sleeve-gloves that they scavenged from the shop. Henry had a theory that if the lunacy somehow spreads by touch, covering their skins might perhaps offer some form of resistance to that touch.
“What’s your name.” Henry whispered, head craning and eyes on the streets.
“Zilly.” she replied, still scanning the area. She had her left hand wrapped around a wrench that Henry had found in an abandoned staff cubicle.
“Cool name.” Henry replied. They scampered behind an empty van.
“You?” she asked.
“Not as cool.” Zilly managed.
Henry felt impressed in a stupid way, and didn’t reply that.
They reached the back lot, and Henry could see the evening sky beyond the exit. Henry flattened himself against the curving wall, and Zilly followed suit.
“I need to set some things straight.” he said curtly to her. “If either one of us gets… touched, you know, just run. Got it? Every man for himself.”
“I’m not a m–”
“If you’re up against a lunatic,” he continued, unclenching his stomach, “hit him or her. Bloody hit ‘em, freaking hit ‘em til they bleed shit. To hell if it’s an old man or pregnant lady or a baby, just hit them hard and fast. Don’t let them touch you.”
Her eyes were wide. “What if… it’s my.. friends? Or somebody i know?”
Henry scanned the outside surroundings, trying to plan a route that had ample cover. “Just hit ‘em until they bleed sideways. They’ve lost their minds and memories, man, there’s nothing left that’s human about them.”
“But they are human!” she protested weakly. “They behave like children, that’s all!”
Henry pulled her along, breaking into a slink out of the carpark and keeping close to the bushes on the side of the building.
“They are a threat,” he hissed in reply. “A freaking contagious threat. Like it or not. And keep your voice down.”
“But…” Zilly started. “.. what if.. it’s my mum?”
Henry felt his innards harden into the equivalent of concrete.
“Just follow my lead and don’t ask questions. This kind of thoughts will only slow us down. We’re gonna get out of this, yea’, so focus on that.”
He could see her biting her lip out of the corner of his eyes, and that didn’t stop his heart from sinking.
Adapted from a short dream sequence dreamt on the 15th of November 2012.