Before the drum happened, Jim had already felt small in this complicated world. He was short, thin, and quiet. His hazel hair was curly, his dark eyes level, and he never moved quicker than he needed to in any situation. Now, in the wake of faceless monsters and empty buildings, Jim felt like a concrete phantom was mounted to his back. The whole world had grown empty since they cut everyone up in flurries of golden claws and secret thorns.
Jim had been at home with his parents and older brother, Sean, when it happened. He managed to hide beneath the stairs inside a box as they stormed through the house, leaving blood stains and split skin as bookmarks. The box was full of Christmas ornaments. The hooks you use to hang the colorful orbs and snow-dribbled houses along the tree were digging into his hair all night. They distracted him from the screams, which abruptly ended in sinewy gurgles.
When Jim heard them leave the house, he snuck out and saw the spiked shadows carrying pieces of his family away. Some parts were still moving. The sight made him vomit and urinate at the same time. Thinking about his family being hauled away in the daytime, meant he’d have nightmares about them. His dreams were almost guaranteed to be sad.
Shortly after the first night, Jim and a few of the neighbor kids that had survived in his Blaine suburb headed towards Northtown Mall, which was nestled just off Highway 10. They’d heard some sort of survivor center was being constructed there. When they finally arrived after dodging the Unnamed and Reanimated during the day and night, they found the tan brick line of shattered storefronts deserted and echoing to their tiny footsteps. The Unnamed had killed the colony before it could even get started. The dead had left behind mountains of food, water, guns, and ammunition. The Unnamed didn’t bother with any of the supplies, at least not yet. Jim, and the two other kids, Lucy and Tristan, decided to hide in the shopping mall instead of wandering around. At night, it was easy enough to hide in the piles of clothes, rubble, or shopping carts away from the Unnamed. In fact, for many days not a single specter appeared when the drum thundered away in some unknown oblivion.
Then parts of the mall started to come alive to ghostly light and formless shapes. The kids had noticed these types of illusions out in the wrecked landscape of overgrown plants, crippled rubble, and strings of cars tossed on their sides like toys. Never did the mirages create rooms within rooms, or stores inside buildings. Pretty soon, during the day the kids realized they weren’t alone.
“You can do it, Jim. You’re faster than us and older. You can just lure it back into the bathrooms and we’ll shoot it dead. I bet you I’ll hit it more than Lucy,” Tristan said. He was shorter than Jim, pudgy, covered in oil, and wore thick-rimmed glasses with the left lens popped out. His hair had remained short in the apocalypse. Jim thought he looked like a mad scientist.
“No, no, I’m sure I’ll hit more. Whenever we do contests outside in the parking lot, I hit so many more,” Lucy said. She was only seven, with red hair, blue eyes, and pale skin that when mixed with dirt made it look like she was covered in bruises. The kids were sitting on the edge of a fountain. The water had dried up long ago, then been replaced with worming vines and blooming flower. There were still coins at the bottom. Their metal skins caught the red glint of surrounding exit signs, which were the only real source of light inside the dead mall, save a few skylights. Sometimes if you stared at the fountain long enough and listened to the sounds of random drops of water tickling the building, you’d for a second believe it was still curling liquid through its rocky pores.
“So it is up, down, left, right?” Jim said. He was catching his sneakers in a tangle of green leaves at his feet. He’d pull up on them like he was tearing them out. They’d sink down tightly, like an jade current in an ocean.
“Yup, that’s it. We can try tonight to see if we get one. I’m sure the stores will light up.” Tristan said. He pointed down the long corridor of crushed mortar and glass to the open of Burlington Coat Factory, which at one time had a metal curtain pulled down. It was now torn aside like a sheet of fish scales.
“Wait down there, Jim. When the store lights up follow the plan and we’ll meet you with guns blazing,” Tristan said. He was holding a rifle of some sort. Nobody knew any of the names of the weapons. Jim carried a handgun, he named it Vega after his favorite video game character. Emily walked over and gave Jim a small hug. Tristan patted him on the back.
“We’re going to go hide, you got probably an hour,” He said. The two kids walked towards the Burlington, passing a Hot Topic and clothing store that was missing its sign. They turned left towards some exit doors and a tax place. There was also another hallway on the right with bathrooms. That is where they’d be camped out.
Jim turned over a wooden bench and sat on it right outside the Burlington entrance. He kicked more plants and kept looking at his watch. It was a small, electronic dial with a Velcro band. It was almost seven, the drum would be starting any moment.
Then he noticed it.
The shadows from the few beams bleeding through the skylight that were attached to the plants, debris, and pillars holding up the ceiling stretched out violently. They were being pulled by some devilish gravity. After a few seconds, the strands of blackness snapped back against their ground objects. A dog that had wandered too far on its leash.
Then, the drumming started.
Jim breathed deep. He was wearing just a polo with shorts, but his clothing suddenly felt really heavy, like he wouldn’t be able to move. A jewelry store on the other side of the mall lit up, along with a dollar store with a bright green sign above its glowing entrance. The ghostly illumination pierced the murkiness like a square spear.
“Up,” Jim whispered to himself. He walked back down the hallway towards the fountain. He tried to be quiet. His shredded shoes cracked and laughed against the glass. A shadow moved on the far side of the mall. Jim reached the intersection where they’d just been sitting, and tried to look down further at the rooms blessed by the ghostly light. There was a hiss to his left by the crumbled entrance of a Best Buy. A shape appeared like it was living in the wall. It was tall, shrouded, and it seemed to move between the world Jim could see and some other plain twisted into the plants and darkness. It had a hood, with golden horns and spikes, with two massive hooks for claws. It looked like a half-made gargoyle that had wandered off its perch.
It moved suddenly, dashing soundlessly towards Jim.
“Down!” Jim yelled. He sprinted back down the corridor towards the Burlington Coat Factory. Something crashed behind him. There was a howling sound. People’s voices were coming from the lit up the stores. Somewhere someone laughed.
“Left!” Jim coughed. His lungs were full of spores and dust. The air was stagnant with barely any objects jostling it around. Nothing under the monster’s gaze wanted to move. He was at the tax store from before. A few chairs were turned on their sides just outside of it. There was weight behind Jim. It was close. The Unnamed was coming. He could feel the air pressure change around him when he dashed.
“Right!” Jim screamed. He cut right into a long white hallway. He fell to the ground, smashing his chin and nose. The air erupted in a string of bullets, which pierced the Unnamed. For a few seconds, the form actually moved into the gunfire gale like it wouldn’t go down. Then, it collapsed in a hiss of claws and horns, and the plants coursing through the mall wrapped it up to be taken away to hidden channels.
Tristan and Lucy hurried over to help Jim up. They’d killed it, but more monsters would hear the gunfire. They needed to hide.
“You remembered perfectly, I’m shocked,” Tristan said, hauling Jim to his feet.
Jim thought back to playing Street Fighter II with his older brother in their basement on the Super Nintendo. He could remember the gray carpet, posters, and piles of pillows with stars on them. His brother would do the code so they could both play as Ryu. Jim wanted to tell Tristan all about it. He wanted to tell him how close the code was to the directions. He wanted to tell him how much he missed his brother. He wanted to tell him everything.
“Yup,” Jim said.
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