What follows is a short story I wrote for a family writing club last year. The goal was to write a piece that incorporated one of the seven deadly sins. I think it’s pretty obvious which one this is, but I’ll leave that determination up to you.
He sat back and patted his stomach, content. The droning of the flies and their soft touches on the skin of his hairy arms no longer bothered him. Not for that brief moment. The plate before him was empty, streaked with the colors of his meal, the glass beside it stained a shade of merlot. The table was otherwise bare. Once used for card games in the living room, he had long ago dragged into the kitchen and now ate all his meals there. One chair. The refrigerator to his right. The oven to his left. The silverware drawer within reach.
The light above flickered, hissed. A streak of light broke through the boards that covered the window, a brilliant yellow stroke across the whole of the room. He brought up his hand so the light passed over his sausage fingers. The warmth was a comfort, small but precious.
A shadow crossed over the window and then was gone. His heart skipped a beat, breath caught in his chest. A low whine. Was it his own voice? His own fear given sound? Or was it the shadow beyond? Time ticked by as he waited for it to pass again. At last, just as the fear began to dissipate, the light was blocked again, this time for longer. He held his breath, gnawed on his bottom lip. Come back, he prayed to the light. Come back.
At last, it did, but he knew beyond doubt that he was no longer alone.
He scrambled into the other room, to the shotgun that lay atop the vanity. It was already loaded but he took a handful of shells with him. Just in case. He took his place behind the overturned couch and watched the door. The other windows were boarded up such that no light broke through but the space at the bottom of the door, there it shined. Brilliant white. Innocent as a wedding dress.
It was the pounding in his ears that sounded like footsteps on the floor above. He knew it was. At first, the tinnitus had terrified him at all hours of the day and night. In the silence, it could pound like prisoners upon the door. But the footsteps were ghosts. Figments of his imagination.
The shadows that blocked the light under the door, separating the beam into three, they were real. There was no denying his eyes. They didn’t lie like his broken ears. He brought up the shotgun, aimed it. The door handle shivered. No knock first? The shadow betrayed its intent. The knock came after, a sharp trio of raps. Silence, then another trio. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, then wiped the sweat on his palms against his chest. Another trio. He brought up the shotgun, finger on the trigger. Open the door, he thought. Kick it in. Show me your desperation. Show me your hunger.
A soft click as the shadow stepped away from the door. Then footsteps walking away. A casual pace. The shadow was gone, had not believed the home to be occupied. Slowly, breathing heavily, ever cautious, he lowered the shotgun. Damn shadows. Could drive a man to drink.
He opened the refrigerator. The light was dead, the food inside warm, all wrapped in clear plastic. No packaging, just hunks of meat veiled in plastic. Red like makeup, white like flesh. The flies swarmed and he batted them away, muttering. Reaching in, he withdrew the egg carton, popped it open with his thumbs. Only three left. I’ll need to get some more. Choosing one, he slipped it whole into his mouth. Bit down, let the fluid drain down the back of his throat. See, he thought. Delicious!
He giggled and the fluid leaked over his bottom lip. Feeling giddy, he went to the mirror and used his sleeve to wipe away the muck so he could see his reflection. Mouth open, he used his tongue to turn his breakfast so the black spot stared at him from behind his teeth.
See! He laughed so hard he spat everything across the mirror.
The American soldier was just walking down into the dark bunker when the crying became too loud and he had to throw his magazine down. The American soldier will have to wait, he thought, and grumbled to himself as he struggled against gravity and the deep folds of his broken armchair. The war will have to wait. He stomped over to the basement door, just outside the kitchen, and kicked it. The frame rattled. The crying broke, turned into sobs. Quieter, at least. He paused. Then, once satisfied, he went back to the armchair and his stories.
Dusk came. Time for dinner. He lay his shotgun carefully down on the vanity, rose from the chair, and went to the kitchen. Frustrated by the flies, he snatched a handful of them out of the air and deposited them immediately into his mouth. Chewing, he gloried in their murder, though it was apparent their relatives did not miss them.
He opened the bread box and the cockroaches scattered. There was nothing inside but ladyfingers. Too early for dessert. He shut the box and turned to the kitchen but paused. There had been more inside. He was sure. Curious, he opened the pantry door and scanned the shelves. Empty, all of them. As expected. Everything was in the fridge, except what he kept in the breadbox. But there had been more.
The knock at the door elicited a garbled cry from the depths of his belly. He grabbed at the sound like it was a physical thing but it was too late. The shadow was back and it had heard him. It had heard him and it knew he was there. He rushed towards the shotgun but slipped on the greasy floor and went down hard. Pain flashed before his eyes, coursing through to his eyes from his knee, twisted underneath his weight. The knock had been replaced by pounding so hard he could hear the hinges of the door whining their displeasure, like a mother being beaten by the son she would not feed. The door would not hold. Could not. It was old, as old as everything. It would break and the shadow would find him there, laying on the floor with the cockroaches and the rats.
No, he screamed internally. Not like this.
Hand over hand, he dragged himself into the next room. A glance to his right confirmed that he was running out of time. The door was bending each time the shadow struck it, tiny slivers of gray light flashing into the room. He reached the vanity and pounded it with his fist. The tip of the shotgun was visible above him but too far to reach and his knee couldn’t hold. He pounded on the vanity again and the shotgun budged towards the edge but only slightly. He began to pound in time with the shadow’s pounding on the door. Whoever succeeded first would live.
The shotgun tumbled from the vanity just as the door broke and cast splinters of wood all around the living room. He caught the gun, turned over, cocked it, and lifted it up just as the shadow’s narrow shape came at him, reaching its long fingers towards his face. He shouted and the gun went off with a fiery blast, throwing the shadow back and over the couch.
It had taken him hours to board the door again. Two trips to the den for wood, two trips to the kitchen for nails, two trips back to the door. The shadow had watched him all the while from where it lay in the living room, fidgeting and whimpering and holding itself inside itself. He had hardly given it a look. It did not deserve his attention. It would have killed him. It had brought its pain upon itself.
When at last the door was boarded, he went to the kitchen and drew his longest knife from the drawer. His work that night was only just beginning.
He wrapped the last piece in plastic and set it atop the others before sitting back in exhaustion. His back and fingers ached. The knife was bent and chipped. It was a shame. There were no others to replace it with, not without risking everything.
The knee complained but he ignored it. Through the chemicals that his body unleashed on his brain in its attempt to convince him to seek sleep, he thought back to that moment before the knock. Before the shadow intruder. He had been at the breadbox. It had been empty.
Using the edge of the sofa for leverage, he pushed himself up. His knee shook but held. While thinking, he ran his tongue over his teeth. He was definitely missing something from the breadbox. Had the cockroaches eaten it all? The rats? The flies? No, there weren’t that many of them, he didn’t think. Something had come into the kitchen. It had opened the breadbox and taken his food. Then it had disappeared.
This was no shadow. The shadows were outside. This was inside. Always inside. The doors were boarded. The windows too. There was no way to get outside. There were only the places inside where he hadn’t been, where the thief was hiding.
Shotgun in hand, he went to the bottom of the stairs. There was only one room upstairs. The bedroom. The door was shut, was always shut. Locked with the key. He patted his thigh until he felt it there beneath the cloth in its rightful place. There was no way into the bedroom, but the thief could have come in through a window, maybe. Hidden in the bedroom. Then come out while he slept on the kitchen floor. He looked up at the door. The thief could have stolen from the breadbox and gone back up, locked the bedroom door behind itself. He hadn’t been inside in months. The light inside was dark. He put his foot up on the bottom stair and hesitated, heart pounding. No. Might as well try the basement first.
He brought back the bolt and unlocked the door with one of the two keys in his pocket. Shotgun ready, he opened the door slightly and peeked inside. Deep black. Only the first few stairs were visible before darkness devoured the rest. Holding his breath, he pushed the door open further. It creaked quietly but came to a silent rest. There was no crying, no weeping, no sobbing. He reached a hand into the darkness carefully and felt along the wall for the light switch. Flicking it up activated the single light bulb and illuminated the eleven stone steps and the door at the bottom, shut closed.
The stairs complained as he made his way down but he ignored them. There was nothing but silence beyond the bottom door. He fit the key into the lock and turned it slowly until it clicked. Then, sliding back the top bolt before the second, he nudged the door open with his foot and took a step back away from the opening.
The room beyond was lit by a bulb hanging on a chain off to his right. In the far corner, a figure sat on the stone floor, legs straight out, torso bent over them unnaturally. It was little more than a skeleton with paper-thin skin drawn over it, dry like autumn leaves. Rats wandered through the light, apathetic to the basement’s resident and its visitor. Neither were strangers.
He tried to turn away but couldn’t. He had to stare at the body. Had to be sure. It seemed still. It seemed to be just where he had left it, where it had always been. But he knew it could trick him still. It wasn’t as dead as it seemed. He heard it crying almost every day. Clear as a bell.
But after a few minutes, he decided it wasn’t going to show itself. Fine, he thought. Be that way. Grumbling under his breath, he turned to the deep freeze by the stairs. He had dragged it as close as possible to the door but its cord wasn’t quite long enough. Opening it required him to turn his back on the cadaver, which he hated. It was going to come for him one of these days, he knew it.
The deep freeze was full of plastic wrapped entrees. Stuffed to the top. Shutting it again was difficult, as full as it was, but at last he managed it. Everything there was accounted for. The thief had raided only the breadbox. He took a deep breath. Upstairs, then. To the bedroom.
The war that had ended everything, it had come when he was young. He was a child of the apocalypse. All he knew of the world before came from his magazines and the stories his mother had told him. He loved the stories. There were monsters, sure. Sometimes they were people, evil men that did bad things. But there were no shadows like there were in the apocalypse. The closest he had seen were the zombie novels; the world destroyed, the governments gone, law eroded, morality extinct. He didn’t like the zombie novels so much.
His mother hadn’t told him those kinds of stories. She had filled his ears with beautiful actresses accepting awards and supermodels posing for the camera. That had been her world before the war. Things like beauty and playing make-believe no longer seemed important. Maslow had been right. More basic needs had taken over. The water that came through the pipes was poisoned and took days to filter and clean. Food was scarce beyond his walls. At least he had his stores. They would last him a while. A long while.
His mother hadn’t understood. She hadn’t accepted the apocalypse for what it was. She hadn’t been able to give up the values that had been so important in her youth, in the world before. She had refused to do what needed to be done. He had gone hungry so many nights, even when there was meat in the homes surrounding theirs. Huddled beneath blankets and dying slowly of the cold and the ash, the meat was in abundant supply.
He had taken it when he had to, when he would have died without it. She had chastised him. Beat him. He had endured it for a few months but over time, he had come to realize how much stronger his body was. She had been withering away, her idealism starving her. He had only grown stronger. One day, he had begun beating her. It had felt good. So much animosity had been built up over time, it had needed the release. Hunting hadn’t truly relieved him. It had been a band-aid over a festering sore. Only after he finished pounding upon her brittle frame had he felt complete.
He hadn’t entered the bedroom since. She was still there, he was sure. She never came down, not in years, but she was still there. He didn’t know what she fed on or what she drank but he heard her move sometimes. Heard her whisper his name. Sometimes he woke up to those whispers but only after she had gone. She hated him now like he had grown to hate her but she would never beat him again.
There was no light under the door. He had climbed the stairs, shotgun in hand, but had paused at the top for several long minutes. He couldn’t hear her breathing. If she was there, with the thief, then they were silent. Maybe they were waiting for him. Maybe they knew he would come. They had to know he would discover their crime.
He unlocked the door slowly, quietly, then stepped back. Nothing. He turned the handle so the door creaked barely open. No light. No sound. With a cry, he kicked the door open and poked the shotgun into the darkness. No movement. The skeletal remains on the bed, the splatter across the sheets and up the walls like ink blot tests, the shrill screams bouncing from one end of the room to the other, they were all just as he remembered them. The thief had shown that much respect, at least.
A brief search revealed nothing. Nobody hiding in the bathroom. No monsters under the bed. The single window was boarded up tightly.
He shut the door and locked it behind him, then sat on the top stair. No thief. No intruder at all, save the one that now rested in plastic-wrapped pieces in the center of the living room. He thought back to the bread box. Had he…? Oh right. He giggled. He had eaten them the day before.
He swatted the flies away from his meal, rubbed their larvae off the meat. It was gray, almost black. He didn’t like eating it when it got that way but he knew it was important to conserve. Even though the deep freeze was overflowing, it wouldn’t last him a lifetime. The thought of hunting again thrilled him. One day, when it became necessary, he would leave the house. He would find the shadows in their lairs and destroy them. He would be a soldier again, like from his magazines.
There was a twisting pain in his side. Something about the smell of the gray meat made him nauseous and he pushed the plate away. The pain bit him again, so hard he cried out. The rats were gathering. One of them bit his ankle and he kicked it away but the motion brought the pain back. He felt as if he were splitting like wood under the axe. He scrambled to get up but there were too many rats there and he slid when he stepped on one. Down he went, to the greasy floor. The rats nipped at his face, breaking the skin, drawing blood, before he could swat them away. They would wait just beyond his reach, then dive in together, biting and clawing. He screamed at them but it was as if they couldn’t hear. All the while, the pain is side was becoming more and more intense.
Desperate to escape the rats, he dragged himself to the basement door. Reaching up to the handle brought up his shirt, exposed his hairy belly, and they fell on it with furious hunger. One hand beat them back while the other scraped along the flat surface of the door in a blind search for the handle. At last he found it. Using it as leverage, he brought himself up to his knees. Survival instinct kept the pain at bay while he struggled with the lock. At last, the door opened and he tumbled through, down the stone stairs, hammering each one, twisting his ligaments, until at last he came to rest at the bottom.
When he came to, he was looking up the height of the door at the bottom of the stairs. The pain was gone. All pain was gone. The rats were gone. He was alone. At peace.
The handle above him wiggled. He squinted, refocusing on it. It wiggled again. He tried to move but couldn’t. His body no longer responded to any of his commands. He thought of his shotgun, up the stairs and around the corner, resting in its place on the vanity. Far, far away.
The door burst open, breaking the locks. The cadaver from the basement corner stood over him, moaning in a perpetual exhalation, as if its breath were like wind passing through it. It tilted its head down, then rolled it slowly to the side just beyond where it seemed natural. He could feel its empty eyes gazing down at him, glorying in his vulnerability. The jaw bone twitched and fell open, revealing a pair of glowing white dots that blinked in time to the pounding of his heart, all while the cadaver’s moaning grew steadily louder.
As decayed as it was, the undead one seemed to decay further before his eyes. The skin on the hand that it reached down toward his face peeled back from the tips of the fingers, revealing cracked white bone. When it touched him, it bit like teeth, cutting open his nose. He couldn’t recoil. Even his instincts betrayed him. He was a spectator within a broken body.
All the cadaver’s skin suddenly tore away and blew back into the empty dark of the basement. Within its brittle ribcage, a dozen rats squirmed, giving the cadaver life. They squealed in desperate hunger and he knew that when they broke free from the prison of the dead thing’s bones, they would devour him.
The moaning grew even louder, deafening him, and the darkness crawled out of the basement from behind the cadaver, overtaking him like a shroud. There were prickly things in that darkness, the biting and hissing souls of the shadows he had destroyed.
Something like deep, rumbling laughter, insidious and angry, roiled out from the cadaver’s open maw, and the rats came rushing down its spine, over and through its pelvis, down its legs, over its feet, to his face, and there they tore into their meal. His massive weight, earned over years of feeding upon his own kind, would sustain them for lifetimes.