Painting and short story by Rayna Cendre
Note* So I’ve decided to try to post a short story every week on Tuesdays. I’m not experienced in short stories. My brain typically works in novel format, but I think it’s a good way to learn to finish a piece, and finishing is something I really need work on. It’s also a nice break from my long stuff. Since I don’t have any novels quite ready to be read at this time, these will be practice for me and a taste of my writing style for anyone who’s interested in reading it. If you have any comments or critiques I’d love to hear them. Hope you like it!
The Knot Hole
Through the broken window is where I first saw her. All of the other windows were boarded up tight, not with nails but with screws, the large ones that didn’t budge even with the weight of bodies pressed against them. I wasn’t sure it was her at first. They never quite look the same. Their expressions become slack and empty, the posture rigid or slumped, and of course the skin tone is never right. Funny how those things play such a part in recognizing a person. You think it’s all about the shape of their eyes or the set of their lips, but it’s not, not really. What truly clued me in was the sheet of paper clutched between her fingers. This happened sometimes, it wasn’t something new. I’ve often seen them stumbling about with the tools of their trade still in their hands, a pen, a wrench, an apron. I think it’s just that they grab the last thing they were around when it happened, and something keeps them from letting go. They don’t really care about the things they hold. It’s just a reflex, like the last circling sprint of a beheaded chicken.
There was a knot hole in the wood, big enough to see through, but small enough to prohibit any decaying hands from reaching in. Sure enough, there she was, grasping the paper to her chest as if about to mount a stage any moment and perform her spoken words. Her writings were beautiful, the perfect balance of weaving prose and sharp triggers, manipulating your emotions in a way I could never quite figure out. She used to come to me, just like this, the paper held close. “Could I read you something?” Her voice would be soft when she asked me, her eyes pleading, almost afraid. That fear never showed on stage. Up there, her voice came out in a way I could only describe as “true”, and the audience felt it too. She could prompt tears, laughter, and hope – all in the same story.
The wind bit at my face through the knot hole. The rest of the house was cold, too, but not so bad as near the broken window. I should have boarded it twice, I knew that. Most of the lower windows had layers of wood, screws driven deep by my early sense of paranoia. Sometimes they came too near to the hole and I had to shoot one or two of them. I tried not to, as the days went on. Most of the time they ignored the sound, but occasionally they slipped into fits of rage prompted by the slightest noise. Whether their ears were more sensitive in death, or they were just hungry for the source, I didn’t know. It got worse as each week passed, as their bodies withered and rotted away, and their moans grew with volume and sorrow. I was running low on ammo, anyway, so I stopped shooting anything at all from the knot hole. I just watched them stumble by, clutching their things, starving and confused. If they got too close I would back up into the room, quiet as I could. I could hear them sniffing at the hole like dogs, clawing at the wood to no avail. I’m sure if they all coordinated their efforts to break through, they could. The broken window with the knot hole was the weakest point of my house, but I couldn’t seem to give it up.
Sometimes I cried while I watched her. Of course I had loved her – but I wept more for the sad, lost look on her face. I had even considered running out to her, letting her have me, to turn me in to one of them. Maybe then I could be with her again. But there were too many, and I feared being torn apart the second I stepped foot out the door. I don’t think she ate anybody, which was strange behavior for one of them. The skin around her mouth was still intact, not covered by the dry brown flakes of old blood that most of them wore. She was so frail, so tiny, I would do anything to hold her again. Such thoughts had to be immediately banished, though. She was not mine any longer, her soul had departed, leaving nothing but the animalistic wanderings, the hungry corpse. I could not think of her as a zombie, the word itself holds a bitter taste. She was more like a ghost, stuck in between, beautiful and dangerous. I watch her as she regards the corpses around her. I watch her look at the sun, the moon, the stars, the trees. I wish I could pray her back into her body, bring her back to life with a kiss. But the undead don’t belong in fairy tales, and I knew this ending would not be a happy one.
My food supply diminished slowly. I considered trying to make a break for the next house, but what if it was boarded up like mine was? Paranoia kept me inside. Better to die of starvation, alive, than to go on to eat other people. My skin was like saran wrap over my bones. I didn’t know a person could go so long on so little food. My wrists were the most fascinating, like twigs with big, knobby branches on the end. I started to feel like wood, like a dying tree. My mind drifted in and out of cohesive thoughts, dancing around ideas and images, a constant state of suffering and euphoria all at once. Every now and then I felt like I was lifting from my body, and I wasn’t sure if I was dying or just falling asleep. I spent all of my time at the knot hole. All that could feed me was her, just to see her, to re-live our time together. I remembered her words, her random kindness to people who most would ignore, her understanding of the state of humanity. I remember her leaving the house, just ten minutes to the store for cigarettes, while I was on a conference call. I remember not seeing her for days and the hole in my chest when I realized that she would not come home. Her body came home, though, that hollow husk, those thin fingers with the chipped ruby nail polish, the sheet of paper. In the days where I thought I would die, I mumbled to myself, imagining what could be written on that paper. I composed entire spoken word segments, inspired by hers, that could be jotted down. It felt more important than anything, like her soul was trapped in the ink, in the bleached white fibers of the page.
Now I lean my head beside the knothole and mutter these incoherent phrases, both deep and increasingly foolish, I think of her smile and her deep brown eyes shining. The wind blows against my face, bringing with it a horrid stench. My eyelids flutter open and I squint. There, again, the smell wafts in. I move to peer through the knot hole, and then stumble backwards. A dark eye is there, looking at me, rolling with hungry panic. I clutch my handgun to my chest. There is only one bullet, and I have been saving it. Perhaps for myself, perhaps for her. I hadn’t decided which one of us I could bare to let suffer. The eye backs away and I see unmarred lips, then a whole face. I lean closer to the hole, just close enough to make sure. Yes, it is her. Her corpse has found my hideout, and now she is ready to eat a living thing, to tear it to pieces and become as much a demon as the rest of them. The paper in her hands is crumpled into a wrinkled ball, held loosely between her fingers and thumb. A weight attaches itself to my heart and drops. This is it, the last sign of her. Her body is forgetting what she was, what the paper meant to her, and nothing will be left behind once it is gone. I can’t bare to see it happen. Her hands lift to pry at the hole. A choking sound escapes my throat, I hadn’t even realized I am crying, but now the tears are so thick I can hardly see. I will save her from this last act, I will take her out of misery before she can kill. Her fingers and face are level with the hole. I line up the gun, and fire.
The explosion deafens my sobs, mutes the sound of her body falling limply to the grass outside of the broken window. A few seconds go by, and other sounds emerge. A chorus of howls, saturated by rage and starvation. They heard the shot, they are coming for me. Even now the sound of their feet scraping against the grass creeps into my ears. I open my eyes, and something is different. A sphere of white against the dark floorboards. The paper. She must have dropped it through the hole when she was prying at the wood. They are coming, but I can finally know what her final thoughts were. With trembling hands I snatch it up and smooth out the creases, careful not to rip it. My heartbeat is in my ears, my breath rapid and hoarse.
They are at the broken window, dozens of them, their weight pressing against the wood. It groans and bows and I hear a snap. My eyes shoot up to see a crack running down from the knot hole. It is the first board to break, and arms burst through the gap. Soon they will be inside, and they will devour me. But this is okay, because I can see it now, the words on the paper, if I can just get the tears to quit blurring my vision. I blink rapidly until I can make out the writing. It is shakier than I had thought it would be, and shorter, too. Rather than a five hundred word story it is merely five, and I have just enough time to read it before they reach me.
I am still in here.