The Hole — Chapter 2
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Evajean rolled down the window. “Jesus,” she said.
“Is this the farthest out you’ve been?” Elliot asked.
Evajean shook her head. “I went to Walmart before Henry got sick, but once he started — Once things got bad, I didn’t go out again, I stayed home.” Evajean rolled the window up and leaned back in her seat. She closed her eyes. “I didn’t know things were this bad.”
Elliot weaved around an empty car. He drove sixty feet and pulled sharply right to avoid another. Beyond dense suburbia, the smell was gone. It was a smell he hadn’t realized he’d grown used to. Out here, the bodies were too dispersed to maintain the stink. But the roads were clogged with vehicles. Some had their doors open, their passengers missing. Others were closed, the windows fogged with the evaporation of rot.
Charlottesville was hell — burned buildings, burned trees, gouged lawns, smashed street lights, limp power lines. Elliot drove past a pet store. He got a domestic feeling, backtracked, stopped, and got out. He told Evajean he wanted to check. She nodded and laughed, humoring him.
They broke the store’s front window and searched cages, scoring a puppy — black, sleeping, now on the bench seat in the back of the truck’s cab. It had to be starving. They’d find it food.
Elliot started the engine and pulled back onto the road.
Evajean picked up the puppy and put it in her lap. She scratched its head. “I always thought it would be gorier,” she said.
“What?” Elliot said. He slowed, pulling around a capsized VW bug.
“The end of the world,” she said. “In the movies, everyone’s killed and torn up, there are bodies and fires.”
“There were fires,” he said.
She shrugged. “I guess I thought there’d be more. More dead.”
“You can smell them,” he said. “They’re all inside.”
Evajean nodded. “It doesn’t seem like enough,” she said.
Elliot thought it probably was enough. He thought Evajean wasn’t making any sense. He cut her slack: she’s just buried her husband. Elliot thought about saying more. He looked at her while she looked out the window. Then he turned back to the road and drove.
Elliot put the truck in park and turned to Evajean. “We should take as much as we can,” he said.
The Walmart parking lot was nearly empty. Nobody wanted to die in front of a big box store. A beaten up hatchback was wedged into the cart return. It rusted without tires. Shopping carts peppered the asphalt. But there was no blood. There were no bodies. The Walmart looked abandoned, not destroyed.
Evajean opened her door and climbed out. The puppy stood up and blinked. It swayed and barked. Evajean leaned inside and scratched its head, telling it they’d be back soon with food.
Elliot got that domestic feeling again. He felt nurturing. “We should bring it with us,” he said. “So it doesn’t get hot in the car.”
Evajean said, “Leave the windows down. I don’t want to have to worry about it getting away. Have you ever had a puppy?”
“They run. Fast. Let’s just get what we need and get out of here.” She glanced around the empty lot. “This place is kind of creepy.”
“Yeah,” Elliot said. She’d nailed it. Creepy. Which was why he wanted the dog — not for its sake, but for his. The store appeared unmolested from here. But inside, they’d find the chaotic detritus of other “shoppers.” They’d find the dark and whatever hid within it. The puppy would make it normal.
But he gave in. He wouldn’t have with Clarine. They’d have had it out. They’d have fought. She’d have won eventually, but Elliot would’ve made it hard.
Elliot stared at the dog. It returned his gaze. He shrugged and followed Evajean.
Near the store’s entrance, they righted an overturned cart and took it. They forced open the sliding doors and walked into Walmart.
His expectations were met. Walmart was dark. Absolutely dark. No windows, no emergency lights. Black and still and silent.
“Should have brought flashlights,” Evajean said.
“There’s one in the truck,” he said.
“Want me to go get it?”
“I will,” he said. He pushed the cart back outside. Evajean stood by it while he walked back to the truck. Elliot was breathing heavy. The Walmart terrified him, though he didn’t know exactly why. He turned back and waved at Evajean, shouting, “I want to get my jacket, too. Do you want yours?”
She hugged herself, rubbing the arms of her sweater. “I’m okay,” she said.
Elliot nodded and jogged to the rest of the way to the truck. He opened the door and pulled his coat out. The puppy looked at him sleepily. “Hi,” he said and scratched its head. He felt the tension leave his chest.
Evajean grinned at him when he got back. “Ready?” she said.
Elliot waved the flashlight, clicking it on and off. He cracked wise: “I had a hard enough time finding stuff in here when the lights worked.”
Evajean laughed. “We’ll figure it out,” she said.
The store, Evajean said after they’d stumbled to the pet food section, was creepier than the parking lot. Distances, inconveniently long when the world was alive, now seemed prohibitively far. Elliot and Evajean made do. They stumbled a grid, tossing food into the cart. They filled it, took it to the truck, emptied it, and filled it again, doing rounds, taking turns pushing and filling.
They were loading clothes when Elliot heard the noise. A faint shuffling. Something being dragged. He stopped and grabbed Evajean’s shoulder. She cried out. Elliot put a hand over her mouth and shook his head. Shut up, he thought. Be quiet. Is there —
A thump. A shuffle. Not close — but not far.
Elliot said, “Did you hear that?”
She shook her head. She pulled away from his hand. “What?” she said.
“I thought I heard something. Like something moving.”
Her eyes went wide. “Is there someone else in here?” she whispered. She hunkered behind a rack of jeans.
Elliot realized he was shining the flashlight in her face. He turned it away and crouched next to her. “I don’t know,” he said. “It could be an animal.”
Then they both heard it: the squeak of sneakers on polished tile. Evajean slapped her own hand over her mouth. “What is that?” she asked between her fingers.
“There’s someone else in the store,” he said. “I’m going to see who it is.”
“Wait — ” Evajean said.
But Elliot stood up. A third person alive? How long had it been since he’d seen anyone? Just a week, maybe ten days, but it felt like forever. Now Evajean — and maybe someone else. Even if that person was sick, was mad, it was still another living human being. “Hello?” he shouted. “Hello, is anyone there?”
There was a response. A whisper. A sigh. Elliot tried again. He heard sneakers squeak. He heard it close.
Elliot pointed his flashlight.
The woman stood twenty feet away. She was in the aisle between the boys and girls clothing sections. Her blue vest hung from one arm. The yellow smiley face button bounced. She spit. She coughed. She ran at them. Her mouth moved. She hummed, Mmmm! Mmmm!
Evajean’s hand came away from her mouth. She screamed.
Elliot waved his flashlight: a quarter pound of cheap plastic and batteries with a rubberized grip. He felt like a fool. Around him were only racks of clothes: no shovels or bats or fireplace pokers. He was effectively unarmed.
He flailed his arms, grabbing for a bludgeoning implement. His hand caught a metal sign from a clothing rack, a frame of aluminum with a weighted base. He swung it, waving it at the woman. He wished Evajean would knock off the screaming.
The light bobbed. Elliot couldn’t keep it steady. He saw quick flashes of the blue vest. He saw a yellow smiley. He saw terrible eyes. “Evajean!” he shouted. “Help, damn it!”
The light flashed Evajean. He saw her run past him. He held up the sign and aimed the light.
Evajean hit the woman low and hard. She knocked both of them to the ground. She was still screaming. The two women rolled back and forth on the tile. They thrashed and tore.
Elliot stood over them, watching. He thought, what the hell is she doing? He’d never been in a fight. He didn’t know what to do.
He felt like a fool. He knew he should help — but how? Jump on the pile?
Elliot turned away and looked around, leaving Evajean and the woman in the dark. Ten paces away the flashlight caught a mannequin. Its arms stuck out — a ridiculous pose. Elliot ran to it. He wrenched an arm free. Holding this new, and much heavier, weapon above his head, he turned back. Evajean and the woman were still on the floor, fighting furiously.
The woman looked sick, diseased, in the final stages when the madness becomes complete and there’s nothing left but animal instinct. He’d seen all that before, seen it with his friends and family, his wife and daughter. But Elliot had never seen violence like this. Never seen one of the sick with such a need to hurt — to kill.
“Get back,” he shouted. “Get up!”
Evajean untangled herself and scrabbled away, giving him a clear shot. Elliot swung at the crazy woman. The impacts were immense. The blows rocked through the mannequin’s arm — through the plastic hand, through his palm. He kept beating her. He didn’t want to stop. He beat the woman and thought of his wife. He beat the woman and thought of his daughter. He beat the woman and thought of his pain.
He only stopped when Evajean grabbed him. She wrapped her arms around him. She said, “Elliot!” She said, “Stop it!”
The woman lay on the tile. One leg kicked. An arm twisted under her back. She gazed up at Elliot and Evajean, eyes wide and aware — and glazed with the craziness they both knew well. The plague. Elliot suddenly hated her for making him hurt her.
The woman would be dead in a few minutes.
Evajean said, “Is she okay?”
Elliot looked at Evajean. She had a scratch on one cheek and a bloody ear. Her clothes were torn. “I think she’s going to die,” he said.
Evajean said, “Oh.” She turned away.
Elliot crouched next to the woman, leaning close to her face. “Can you hear me?” he said. His rage had gone. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to do that.” He didn’t expect a response. This far gone, the disease robbed them of comprehension.
But the woman shifted her eyes to his. Some of the crazy tension went out of her face. She opened her lips. She slid out her tongue.
The sounds, he recognized. They were the same mad syllables he’d heard from Callie and Clarine. The sounds of the plague borne insanity. But it was different now. The same sounds, yes, but this time they were measured. Controlled. Like a foreign tongue instead of the frightened calls of an animal. The woman’s words were distorted. She forced them through the pain of her wounds — the pain of dying.
“What are you saying?” Elliot said. He put his ear closer to her mouth.
But he only heard more of the strange language. None of the words were recognizable. They were clouded by humming — Mmmm… Mmmm…
Then the “Mmmm” broke open. It coalesced. It attained meaning. “More!” the woman she shouted. “More!” Again and again — that single word.
“More what?” Evajean said. She touched Elliot’s shoulder. “Does she want you to hit her more?”
The shouts turned to coughing. The woman convulsed. She faded fast.
Elliot stared at the corpse. He’d seen far too many.