A Short Story
That men and women are capable of the most splendorous feats of greatness as well as the lowest forms of depravity is not near as surprising to me as man’s ability to achieve the mediocre. When I examined the annals of mankind’s works and achievements I was neither impressed nor overly horrified by the extent to which men may either rise or fall. As a student of man and his works throughout the course of his existence I was well aware of how in a single generation men can be both so evil as to commit cruel genocide and so selfless as to sacrifice themselves for complete strangers. What I am incapable of understanding, given the nature of man and his awe-inspiring home which we do call planet earth, is how and why men are capable of leading and achieving such lives of incredible mediocrity. The extent of man’s ability to achieve nothing was almost paradoxically impressive in itself.
I sat amidst the bones of giants, surrounded by such hills and vistas as to inspire and arouse the greatest passion within one’s soul. Evenstill, I simultaneously sat in a poorly crafted chair amidst a shabby and unimaginative waiting room. Nothing within that banal doctor’s office, which was poorly lit and poorly air conditioned, would have given a single clue as to mankind’s capacity for greatness. The office was neither good nor evil, it merely was. My glance turned from person to person within the small room. Just beyond the confines of the physician’s vapid walls a brilliant sun was setting. The star which gives warmth and life to our system sent dazzling rays of color and light through the hills, alighting the world in vivid red, pink, orange, blue and purple. Nevertheless, the faces of those within the sad room were blank and empty. Their eyes fixated upon their phones, their spark dull and almost non-existent. We all melded into the office. It existed as ants exist. Mindless, together yet alone, neither in pain nor at peace.
As our sun sent its last rays of vivifying light through the earth’s crests my name was called. A woman in a formless dull set of scrubs pronounced the syllables which made my name. Yet the name she called was not my own. A name holds a certain power and a type of influence. The sounds which this lady did make were not my name but even so I acknowledged they were meant for me. I arose and followed her unto a similarly dingy hall. I was made to lay upon the scanner’s table and slowly I slid into the magnetic resonance imaging machine. The apparatus whirred to life and my body was bathed by a billion invisible lasers. Again I found myself waiting in a small plain office. There were no windows nor decor save for a faded and peeling flower-patterned wallpaper.
The doctor entered and after exchanging the customary pleasantries he informed me of my impending doom. The cancer had returned, now more aggressive and deadly than ever before. The doctor did sentence me to death with the utmost of professional politeness. While his tone was heartfelt and salubrious his words were dark and acidic. I took in the words with neither surprise nor concern. All was as I had predicted. I felt neither anger nor fear, I was as the doctor’s office, I merely was. But not for long, in no more than a few months’ time, I would no longer be. Just as countless other men and women before me, I would no longer be.
I thanked the doctor for his time and informed him I would make the final decisions as to my care on the morrow.
I exited the office through a side door, the closest exit I was able to find. The cool night air entered my lungs. A full moon shone elegantly along with a thousand far off stars, all sending their luminescence upon the earth. I felt life flowing in the streets and flowing back into my being. I was soon to be no more, but not yet.
The walk back home was no more than twenty minutes, but it was pleasant and revivifying. I felt as if each breath I drew in was another blessing, another opportunity to take in creation. I was alive and I intended to live as well and for as long as I could. Approaching my home I took one final draught of the stars and entered the door in bright spirits. The abode was humble and small. But it was neither less nor more than sufficient for both my necessities and desires. After a simple but satisfying dinner I took my place upon the small cushion I had set upon the window bay. I ignited the lamp by the window and it sent its warm light out in response. Taking up my steaming tea and one of my favorite editions of Boatwright’s studies of the ancient Romans I sat and read deep into the night. I had left the window open so that the cool night air could be felt upon my precarious perch. I was at peace. No thoughts of my impending demise nor of the internecine war of cells within my body did trouble me as I read of that great empire amidst the pleasant wind, the wondrous stars and my warm tea and lamp.
The night passed. The moon deepened and crossed the sky. My young neighbors began to stream noisily back into their homes. They acknowledged me, more than a few with a drunken smile, calling up with polite and genuine words, “Hey there prof,” or “Hey Dr. P.” I smiled and nodding would greet them by name.
I paused for a moment from my reading of Sulla’s conquest of Pontus to meditate for a moment on the lunar body amongst the stars. I had always imagined the moon to be a woman. It was bright and blemished yet elegant and graceful, beautiful in a way that was distinctively feminine. It reminded me of her. Her sparkling eyes, her bright smile and small, slim figure. I felt a tug of longing and passion deep within my chest. For a moment an old, long-since-buried hurt did resurface and burn more hotly and painfully than the cancer within me ever could. I closed my eyes and remembered her. Her memory pushed away the burning pain within me and replaced it with a joy which was warm unlike the pain and more akin to the feeling of a pleasant, warm liqueur.
As I sat in peace and solitude a great churning noise suddenly filled the night. My lamp burned increasingly bright as the churning grew in pitch. Then just as suddenly there was some sort of pop and my lamp went out. Setting my book upon the sill I arose, pensively and with no small amount of confusion. All was darkness. Young voices bounced about the walls around me, some sounded confused, others frightened.
That's when we heard it, that horrid shrieking scream in the night. My ears had never before heard such profound perversion and agony within the same terrible cry. I know not what to compare that howl to other than the imagined scream of some mythical banshee or harpy. At once the sound gave me a deep sense of both loneliness and dread.
For a moment it seemed as if the entire world stood frozen in place. I was rooted to the floor, not daring to move a singular muscle of my body. Then the cries multiplied. First two more. Then four, then seven and ten. I imagined the sounds to be a small spark which had fallen in a wide forest, solitary at first but multiplying until all the forest was in flames. Soon the horrific howls filled the night.
In response bewildered exclamations and profanities arose in the form of the young voices. I knew not what to do nor how to respond. I was suddenly filled with an icy terror that encompassed my whole being from the tips of my hair to the ends of my toes. Instantly all the cries and shrieks were drowned out by a deafening explosion which rocked the earth and the small apartment complex. I felt as if I was caught in the sun, the night turned red, orange and yellow for an instant. Instinctively I threw myself upon the floor. Although it’s source was at least blocks away the explosion’s shockwave shattered my windows and sent glass shards flying like so many miniature daggers. My instincts had served me well as I avoided the majority of those glass daggers. But a few stuck into my arm as I shielded my head. The tiny wounds immediately sent trickles of bright red blood running down my arm.
The world was transformed yet again but now into a sphere of utter panic. The hellish screams continued and the sounds of human terror continued to arise in response. My vision became blurred and I was failing to focus on any one thing in particular. My mind became a fog. I was vaguely aware of another rocketing explosion in the distance. Without really knowing why, disconcerted and as if in slow motion I began to crawl towards my back door. Reaching my kitchen I used the counter to force myself up. The marble counter was cool to the touch. I nearly fell over again but it rooted me to the floor. I blinked, trying to regain my focus and gain some measure of cognitive clarity. A few more moments passed but I felt my consciousness returning to me. Hoping to not have to use it I grabbed a large kitchen blade and tentatively peaked my head out the back door.
“Doctor P?” I heard a terrified voice say.
Blinking in the dark I recognized Claire, a young student of mine. The girl was around twenty but in her terror she was diminished and seemed only a small child to me.
“Claire?” I heard myself say.
“Doctor P, what is happening?” Her voice cracked.
I stepped out my door and unexpectedly heard the sounds of gunshots in the distance. The girl shrieked in terror and crumpled to the ground. I reached out to her and hovered above her. Despite my own terror I felt an inexplicable sense of responsibility for the girl. She was young and innocent, far from her family and alone.
Without warning a stream of bullets riddled through her kitchen walls, whizzing by hotly, only missing us by inches. Claire screamed and my head began to spin again.
“We have to move, Claire!” I shouted above the din.
She didn’t respond, she only continued to cry. Her eyes were glassed over. She was in shock. I forced the girl to stand and pushed her along with me down the stairs. As we reached the ground floor another explosion enveloped the night. Some woman came rushing by and as we were already unsteady she brushed us aside in her efforts to escape. We fell to the floor in a jumble. I hit the concrete with a thud which sent waves of pain richocetting through my old bones.
This time it was Claire who helped me to my feet and we began to run, to where I could not say. We approached our gate which lay open and swinging in the wind.
“Doctor P?!” Another voice cried out.
Just on the other side of the gate, partially in the street stood Mark, another young student of mine. Like Claire he seemed to me only a frightened child.
My eyes went wide with horror and complete astonishment as in the very next instant some creature from my darkest nightmares sprang upon Mark. It took hold of him and with savage furiosity and cruelty ripped his life force from him. The nightmare creature proceeded to feast on the bloody remains of Mark’s body.
My mind was entirely incapable of processing what I was witnessing. Despite all my years of study and all the knowledge I had obtained I could not understand nor guess what it was that I saw before me. Moving with alarming speed it swung to face Claire and I. Blood still dripping from its teeth it snarled at us furiously.
Retreating backward I slammed the gate shut. But alas, in my terror and bewilderment I had not the good sense to lock the gate. As we retreated the creature was joined by others like it. They smashed through the gate and like a torrent streamed after us.
Not thinking of anything save escape, Claire and I retreated as swiftly as our legs could carry us. But it was in vain for we were soon cut off and we found ourselves hemmed in on all sides. I despaired of all hope for a moment but at the side of my eye I noticed the door to our laundry room swung open. Grabbing a hold of Claire’s arm I pulled her after me and we slammed the laundry room door shut just in time to avoid the reaching claws of the nightmares behind us. This time I did have the good sense to lock the door and bolted it as well for good measure. The laundry room was small and rectangular, deeper than it was wide. There were no windows nor points of entry save for the metal grated door which I had bolt shut. Pushing Claire behind me we retreated to the darkest corners of the room, avoiding the moon’s rays which streamed through the door’s grating. Behind us darkness and the hope of safety and in front of us the light and the certainty of death. They slammed themselves into the door. It shook but did not give way. They snarled in rage to be deprived of their human prey. Yet they were not ready to give up the hunt so they continuously pounded themselves into the door.
By some miracle the old door did not shatter nor give in. It held and for the time being we were saved.
To be continued.
This has been;
An Unfollowed Short Story.
By Peter Pinedo.