Cockroaches, by Amanda Underwood

(Download the audio version of this story here — read by Juliana Quartaroli.)

“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.”

-T.S. Eliot

1.

Sixteen days ago we stepped out of our first AA meeting with the absolute assurance that it was a complete waste of time. The three of us, misfits in every sense, gathered on the grass to fight with the flickering flame of a lighter. I’d been on edge for a while and the thick dusk drew down on us with physical intent. Even the tiny flashes of combustion didn’t ease the strain on my eyes. It was that moment when the trees stand like looming sentries against the night. I shivered as darkness crept, predator-quiet between the bark, watching us, waiting for us.

“Pussy,” Violence snorted at me, her nostrils flared wide in disgust at my weakness.

“Shit-shit-shit,” Gizzy hissed as the flames burnt his fingers and he spat on them to ease the pain. Nicotine-stained flesh barely discolored as he bent back to try again.

“You’re doing it wrong.” She snatched the lighter from him and turned her back to the wind. She only wore a black t-shirt with the Anarchy symbol against the cold, either to tough it out or to show off the scars that lined her skin like pale tattoos. Each one had a story, I’m sure, but asking Violence about her past got you a strangely blank glower that pulled at the fresh wound on her lower jaw. I was positive that she was freezing no matter how much bravado she liked to wear like body armor. November nights in Portland weren’t known for balmy temperatures, even when there was no rain. I glanced up at the sky as though the thought might draw the weather down on us.

Smoking had the same pull on me – and the two sad fucks to my sides – that alcohol did. We’re the huddled clutches that you saw in sleet and hail drawn together with smoke and wavering flames. I wouldn’t have known these two if it wasn’t for AA, and it was just serendipity that we prayed to the same god of nicotine. The need to smoke rode me through the meeting. The need to do something, anything, other than sitting there and talking about alcohol as though that was the solution to not drinking it.

I’d been the last one to speak before the break. The rote bullshit, “Hello, my name is John and I’m an alcoholic.” After all the sad stories I felt almost ashamed that I didn’t have one. I went to work, I came home, I drank. At some point the three converged. AA was the only thing holding me back from prison time and I wasn’t sure how that made me feel. The DUIs were an inconvenience. Losing the job hadn’t really mattered. I was partially skilled labor, somebody would hire me. They always did.

All I knew was that if the law had its way, smoking would be the last sin allowed me.

“Twelve steps,” Gizzy muttered to me. “Fuck me, but I won’t walk the twelve steps to my fridge if I have to.” He was the kind of guy who was a fixture at the local dive, carved out of the same material as the bar, and just as motionless. The kind whose drink always needed refilling even when the motion between hand and lips got kind of blurry.

The three of us were a mismatch, tossed into a strange collaboration by a parole officer with a twisted sense of humor. Actually Dick was just a jack-ass. Sending the three of us off with the goal of reformation when he knew we’d all choose prison in a heartbeat. He’d made us into each other’s keepers, as though there was some kind of honor among alcoholics. I thought it was his way of getting out of responsibility for us, dumping the three of us on the steps of this ”new” stone church that was identical to every other congregation for six miles. So many buildings that housed nothing but weddings and Sunday masses; I guess this one made extra money by catering to the anonymous losers of the world.

I changed my mind in an instant. I didn’t want to be outside anymore. Residential Portland was a thinly lit mass of houses. There were a few homes internally lit with a golden glow completely unlike the shoebox apartment I called home, but there were long spaces where the houses were dark. With overhanging trees and a cloudy sky, they disappeared into deep black abscesses that made it seem like the only buildings on the block were the church and the distant fluorescence of a gas station.

Unease wormed through my gut, desperation for something to lean my soul on. Violence finally lit the cigarette and passed it to me. I was careful not to touch her, and conversely, almost broke the cigarette as I avoided her fingertips. Every drag burned. It was probably the only time where I understood how she could be so addicted to pain. All three of us hated life, especially when we’d found ourselves gutter-bottom and barely hanging on, but there was always this sense that you had to keep going even when Jack Daniels and Jim Beam were the only bedmates who mattered.

“I want…” Gizzy started.

“Shhh,” Violence snapped at him. Her head canted sideways as though she’d heard something.

The jerky movement gave her buzz-cut scalp the appearance of a vulture, bobbing its neck at potential prey. A week ago I’d told her that she should let her hair grow out and it had taken Dick and the P.O. next door to keep the damage at one black eye instead of two. That eye was still tender and the more jittery I got, the more I wanted to rub at it.

“Shhh-you.” Gizzy snatched the cigarette from me and pointed towards the far end of the block. The gas station looked empty, no cars at the pumps, and at this distance we couldn’t even see the shadow of the attendant inside. “I need a drink myself.”

“Shut the fuck up, old man.”

“I’m going in.” I couldn’t do it any longer. I just wanted –

Something groaned behind us. A deep heavy sound, as though the building suddenly shifted its weight with a ponderous attempt to get up.

It’s an earthquake, was the first thing that ran through my head. We were close enough to California and the fault lines. But this wasn’t the ground. Even as my head wrapped around that thought I heard the noise again. And this time it sounded like a low throbbing growl running like bristles up the back of my neck. Wind tore through every gap in my clothes. As the noise deepened, the sweat that sprang from my pores dripped ice-cold along the hollow of my back.

“The building moved.” The words fell out of Gizzy’s mouth along with our precious cigarette.

“No it didn’t,” Violence snapped.

So I was the voice of reason. Or fear. “Yes. It did. It moved.”

“Buildings don’t move.”

The church heaved from the interior. Any satisfaction that I was right was blown away. I couldn’t move. Violence made a gesture that I couldn’t decipher. All I could do was stare and hope, pretend really, that whatever was going on was too big to notice me. My brain iced up. I was frozen, watching as the building heaved again from inside. The bricks seemed to draw on weight and heft and their new mass let the building swell as though a deep breath filled it.

The building arched up like a huge predator and leered into the sky with the sound of shearing metal. It was an impossible motion. And even more strangely, I remembered looking at it and thinking that it was the first step of a stop-time explosion. It was a frame-by-frame demonstration of how to blow up old buildings. I wanted that to explain it: a gas leak, a bomb, anything but what my hindbrain screamed it was. There weren’t any words in the reptilian piece of meat that followed us throughout evolution, just a terrified sense that flight was the only option.

Glass burst from windows stretched and blossomed into a thousand falling shards of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

All three of us flinched backwards.

The foundation gave off a unique sound. I don’t remember it clearly, but it sounded like all these at once: a train whistle, a shooting star, stones cracking as they were torn asunder. And yet there was something else. An eerie whine beneath it all. As though wind was sucked from inside the building – positive to negative – and then that noise stopped as though the doorway closed.

Or something else came through.

Voices called out from inside the building. There’d been a lot of us at the meeting, but I couldn’t remember how many. Forty? Sixty? All their faces blurred together as their screams rose, slow and tremulous to start. Unnerved, Violence cursed next to me, a more aggressive sound than the whimpers that Gizzy and I managed. Voices were added until there was an entire choir. Hell’s version of a chorus. And then, one by one they were cut off. They were dying inside: somehow we knew it, but none of us moved. Fear or self-protection kept us motionless, but it didn’t matter to those just a few feet away; no help was coming.

At its apex I would have sworn that the building was a thousand feet high. But memories cloud what exhaustion does not.

Electricity snapped, popped and died. Every flash illuminated a coiling motion. I saw some thing whip off the ceiling as though it had been lying in wait like a gigantic octopus. Silvery tentacles reminded me of how the big soapy fronds spin your car through the automated wash. Except that these sucked people off the floor as the lights gave out and there was nothing but slurping darkness.

It – I was too fucking scared to understand, or try to define it – collapsed back down and hunched over its kill. Lightless. Now soundless inside. But the building was far from quiet or still, foundation and roof crackling and chomping like jaws over fresh meat. What constituted the marrow was a thought that shut down my bladder. Instead of wanting to piss, it was the furthest thing from my mind; it would take energy and my body wanted to conserve that for running.

Gizzy made this weird choking hiccup that caught my attention. He was trying to point down the street but he shook with a palsy that hadn’t been there five minutes ago, the same fierce tremble that invaded all our bodies.

“Is it over?” he asked me, as though I was supposed to have some kind of answer.

“I don’t…” but the words escaped me. Every building around us, every one, gave the sense, with an absolute surety I could not understand, that it was the same. The utter silence that blanketed the street did not speak of life and human beings but of rape and violation. Every place that we considered sanctuary was stolen. I stared at the church and noticed that the rubble around the steps wasn’t as bad as I had thought. Maybe it was all some weird delusion and I’d go back inside and have to emote to the group some more, make them believe that I wanted to change my life. I had to be wrong.

“I’ll go check.” Violence dragged me back to the moment. There wasn’t any fear in her voice, but I guessed she’d lost the meaning of self-preservation somewhere between the first scar and the head shaving. She started for those steps, a lone supplicant heading towards some kind of terrible knowledge.

Words lost their meaning. I wanted to tell her to stop. I wanted to tell her that I would go. I wanted a drink to drown my inabilities and build my false shield around me. I couldn’t tell her any of that, I was too afraid.

The tingle started somewhere below my navel. It was certainty.

There was something in that building.

Gizzy screamed “No!” in a voice reserved for six-year old girls.

She turned back to us, her shoulder bones rigid and clearly visible under her threadbare t-shirt. At the heart of each one of us, even her, we were still animals and there was only one answer when you felt this way. You wanted to run, find safety, and hide. Pull the door shut and lock it behind you to keep out the boogeyman. But the boogeyman ate the windows and the doors. He grew so big that he knocked the roof skyward and became the house itself. What the fuck do you do against that? What do you do when all the boogeyman wants is for you to come home?

“It’s…is it in the building? Or is it the building? What were those – what were those fringe things? What the fuck is going on?” Gizzy was on the verge of tears.

“I don’t know,” a voice that sounded like mine answered calmly. “We could walk downtown, find someplace to spend the night. Something not like – somewhere not here.

“Safety,” he affirmed and I was shocked how much I wanted to believe it too.

Violence just stood there, apart from us in her defiance. A barrier that I would have wrapped around me if I’d ever had the strength to hold it in place. Liquor sometimes sufficed and goddamn me if I didn’t want a cigarette.

Our motley caravan didn’t find sanctuary. Every building was the same.

We crossed into a public park. Usually there were old men playing chess on tables long after the sun had gone down. Their soft patois of familiarity and trash-talking would echo back and forth under low-hung trees that protected the tables from the incessant rain. Chess pieces that marched through the debris from the branches as it fell fragrant and heavy, the trees shedding pieces of itself with as little thought as we lived and breathed.

Now there was no one. Just a few games, frozen between one move and the next, abandoned. Cheap plastic pieces left side-by-side with more valuable personal sets. Knights and queens and pawns tipped onto their faces and forgotten.

Gizzy collapsed, looking like a survivor of fifteen years’ hard labor. His breath was harsh, probably emphysema added to the effects of the cold night air. Watching him, I was suddenly, sharply, glad not to be an old man.

The question of what next hung between us. Where do the cockroaches run when all the rugs have been picked up?

“I might know a place,” Violence offered.

“What kind of place?”

“My kind of place. What does it matter, Doe? Someplace to put our backs against a wall until tomorrow morning.”

“I don’t want a wall anywhere near me,” Gizzy said.

“Then you’ll freeze to death in this fucking park, old man.”

She was right. The temperature was dropping and pretty soon we’d have nothing but our body heat to hold back the night. I might do okay in my coat, but Violence wouldn’t, and while Gizzy was half-preserved with alcohol it wouldn’t help in the end. Booze might cut the chill, but we didn’t have any, not even any of the nasty AA brew they called coffee.

I helped Gizzy back to his feet and we followed Violence to an underpass filled with a hundred young, urban homeless and their ramshackle town. They made room for us even as whispered discussions populated the night. I didn’t have anything to offer. Without alcohol running through my blood, with no emotions to draw on, I was empty. Long past midnight I fell asleep to their murmurs and found a sense of comfort in the sound.

2.

We wasted our lighters on wood that wouldn’t light. The drizzle of rain soaked everything and even baking the kindling in the inch-high flame only got us wispy black smoke. I tried to remember what the Boy Scouts would do: flint, wood sticks to rub together, waterproof matches, but I wanted a fucking flame thrower. Anything that would set the wood on fire instead of failure after failure.

Gizzy finally took it away from me. We had enough cigarettes left that it made more sense to prioritize. Smokers and drinkers are good at tricking themselves into thinking that their vices make them warmer and I was good at believing the lie.

But four days under the bridge taught me another life lesson. When people get hungry they’re all murderers at heart. First we tried to steal groceries from parked cars. Then, when anti-theft systems and the lack of tools stalled us, some of the younger crew got the thought to go fishing. A couple of men took large sticks and a long coil of laundry line to snag food from inside the storefronts. Gizzy and I were sharing a bottle of Night Train and some bum’s hideous shelter when the group went out.

Only four came back, Violence among them, and they didn’t have any food. I was feeling so numb I never asked her what happened, Night Train tastes like puckered olives but it works when you drink it fast enough. I tried to blame my inaction on the drink when I saw two men start to fight over a couple of candy bars. I wasn’t hungry enough to lay down my life for two sticks of chocolate nougat; they were.

I pulled Gizzy up and without asking, Violence joined us.

We scuttled during the daylight, avoiding others and yet always searching – for food, for shelter, for weapons. The city seemed half-abandoned. And I could imagine how it had happened. Commuters who hadn’t noticed the weird quiet of their neighborhoods but walked up, juggling cell phones, groceries, children – and gotten too close. The streets were full of empty cars but we never saw the people who’d driven them.

We were creatures without safe haven, cramped into balls under bridges and the few free-standing structures that seemed safe. Fleeing from the boxes that contained our lives, but then drawn back to them as hunger and other needs made themselves known.

It was the one time in my life when I desperately needed a drink and couldn’t find one. It consumed me.

But then Gizzy found the truck parked outside the liquor store on 12th St. There were parts of him that almost seemed petrified, but it turned out his nose was not. Downtown was seedy in a way that would have sent me looking for another place to raid, but I didn’t care anymore; there was no one to notice as we crept around the truck with imagined thief-like stealth. That the search for food ended here was not exactly surprising.

With AA out of the question it didn’t take much prodding. So much for the promises, but what good were forced promises anyway? I wasn’t a repentant drunk, just one who’d gotten caught.

As he yanked us down the street we ran into a group of kids, teenagers, who didn’t seem aware of the seriousness of the situation. If it had been a cache of food we would have defended it with every fiber of our rot-soaked beings. But it was booze, an entire truck-full, so we were more willing to share, which with a twisted sort of logic made sense.

But they weren’t the hardcore drinkers that we were. Forty minutes into a case of bourbon, one of the boys dared another to raid the tiny grocery next door for food and he accepted.

I was on my feet before I thought about it.

“John,” Violence said from behind the barrier of her own bottle. “Let them.”

I cast a glance between her and Gizzy, looking for some kind of validation that I should stop them, that they didn’t deserve to die for a moment’s stupidity. But booze-soaked drunks aren’t the bastions of moral support that I might have hoped for. I wasn’t either. The thing that hid inside – how would we know when it had gone? With all its food gone, how would we know that the buildings had been hollowed and left for us again? Maybe it was a one-time event. I wasn’t going to volunteer, so maybe Violence wasn’t right: let someone else do the exploration, let someone else step past the once-welcoming entrances into the dark.

The boy was a lanky fifteen-year old and pretty drunk on the first taste of booze that wasn’t his mother’s schnapps. But something shivered inside him as he reached the clear glass door that fronted the market, the frame bent and warped on its hinges. The hazy sunlight, peering through the omnipresent clouds, lit up those first few feet. We abandoned our perches in the truck to watch him as he reached the frame and twisted his body around it to enter the store. Whatever force had moved the building had also thrown food and groceries into disarray. Boxes of cereal, cheap cigars, and the fluttering pages of magazines all waited in that nebulous space.

Nothing grasping or dark grabbed him. I held my breath. His face turned up, watching the Seafoam ceiling. A banner for double-coupon days had fallen over the front register and I thought off-handedly that I didn’t know tiny grocers even accepted coupons. Fast food and take-outs kept me alive between binges and I hadn’t cooked a meal in years. This kid, making his way further into the store, looked like he was about to experience becoming one himself.

“Do you see anything?” one of the other boys shouted.

“Nah, nothing.”

“Well then, fucking go in already.”

I fought down the bile in my throat; it tasted like good Kentucky whiskey.

He passed through the threshold and squatted inside. His hands rooted through the closest items – even alcohol had its limits. Still touched by sunlight, he felt comfortable and safe, as though it was only the darkness that hid the nightmares.

Get out!” Gizzy’s harsh outburst surprised me. “GET OUT OF THE STORE!!

The boy spun. Pink cheeks went pale as we all felt it now. It was a sinking sensation in my gut, the sudden urge to shit that diarrhea forces on you. Groceries fell from his hands, food so close I could taste it. But despite his youthful energy, there was no way to win a race when your opponent jumped the gun. The building lurched, knocking his feet away and he mewled. Everyone outside screamed. The shadows in the store swept toward him. It unrolled from the ceiling, the walls, and the floor. Some kind of chameleon coloration protected it. I couldn’t reconcile the absence and the existence. Blinking didn’t fix anything.

The boy slipped and fell. He scrabbled at the floor. Gained an inch. Shrieked again. A child’s cry. Thousands of long, tentacle-like fingers whipped out and caught him and he squeaked as it drew him up.

“Whatingod’sname…”

It spun him, rolled him into its grasp, spinning strands of itself around until it completely covered him. He screamed. A sound that made me choke on the saliva, thick in my mouth.

I imagined that it had roots all the way through the building, because the structure groaned as it moved, drawing the cocooned boy up towards the rafters. Then it lunged, pulling itself tightly in, and there was just one gulp. The same way I popped grapes into my mouth.

The other boys were crying and sobbing as corn flake dust mixed with concrete to billow out around us.

I threw up my whiskey unintentionally. Gizzy mumbled to himself as he fell to the sidewalk. I might have caught him but my hands were planted on my knees as I heaved out my liquid lunch. Only Violence seemed unmoved, but maybe she’d seen this before. Her face was impassive as the store’s movement fell back into stillness. The door was cranked in the opposite direction and the cheap five-cent candy jar was spilled across the front counter. It was gone. Curled back into its façade to wait for the next victim.

“We don’t go inside at all.” Violence didn’t seem like she had expected anything else. I just stared at her numbly. “It’s the streets or nothing.”

“That’s it? It’s just that easy for you?”

I’d known that she carried a knife, I just didn’t expect her to pull it on me. Four inches of gleaming serrated steel. It wouldn’t go in easy. I could imagine the force the blow would require, and in mockery her t-shirt showed exactly how strong her corded arms were. The draw seemed like reflex and even her expression mimicked that. She wasn’t about to kill me, but I wasn’t sure why she wouldn’t.

She read my mind. I hadn’t thought it was that transparent.

“What are you, John? A guy who had no future before this thing and you know it. You’ve got nothing. No good ideas, no solutions, nothing. So tell me why you think you could be in charge of our little group and make the decisions? Tell me what you know about survival.”

“I don’t make decisions.”

“No shit.”

“But I’m also not a suicidal bitch.” The anger just poured out of me and I could imagine what had happened on that fishing party. Some brave asshole had thrown a line into a store trying to snag food and those tentacles swarmed down from the ceiling, catching his line, maybe catching him. The others would have tried to help him, but not Violence. Not her. “Why are you with us? Is it some vestigial sense of honor? That the two fucks who aren’t worth saving are the only ones who can tolerate your callous self-loathing? Is that why you’re with us?!”

It hurt more than I thought it would. I stared down at the tip of her knife where it invaded my stomach. The blood just trickled around the sides of the blade as though it was as startled to be released as I was. Violence was only an inch away from me but as I looked down and then back up at her, the two blurred together.

“That’s why I drink,” I told her. “So I don’t have to make any fucking decisions about life. I just wanted to know what you were getting out of this. Why we should trust you to watch our backs? This thing. Just writing off everything. Are you going to write us off, Violence? Are you going to let me walk into the fucking dark just like we let that kid? Who’s gonna make those kinds of fucking decisions?!”

“We’re going to survive.”

“Are we?” I grabbed her arms, the first time I’d ever touched her forcefully. Her skin burned with the same ferocity I imagined it would.

“Pour some alcohol on it.” Gizzy shouldered the two of us apart and dumped vodka down my front.

It hurt. It burned like I imagined fire would against tender skin. Violence just watched as I howled, but she stayed. She said we were going to survive like it was going to be easy. Maybe it was easy for her, but it didn’t turn out like that.

Eight days later, Gizzy gibbered helplessly on the sidewalk, his mouth full of drool and curses until you couldn’t tell which were coming out anymore. He was twitching with the DTs, yellow-stained fingers flapping at his sides, and we abandoned him where he lay. I ran past him. And told myself that we’d come back, that I’d make Violence come back. But I didn’t know whether or not we would. There were more important things than helping him. His demons rode him down but hunger was just as merciless as a master.

“There!” Violence pointed. “There he is.”

I could barely see her in the dusk. She’d been wearing the same clothes for as long as I had, but for some reason the black fabric had just gotten darker on her lanky frame, and her bare arms appeared whiter in the half-light. A thick scarf had found a home on her head, wrapped into a rough turban to cover her bare scalp. The loose end trailed down her back like real hair as she lunged through the weighted air that presaged real night. Her target saw us too. His shriek was that of a stricken animal cornered and he turned to run, clutching at the bags of food he carried, and broke for the far side of the parking lot.

She was faster than both of us, running on nothing but anger and adrenaline. I would have tackled the man if I had caught him. Violence leapt upon him like a knight in battle chess, her horsetail of scarf flaming out against the night sky. There was nothing gentile about what happened next. She smashed her hands together, bundles of nails clutched firmly in each one, and the man screamed under the thunking sound that announced his death.

He crumpled and Violence rode him all the way to the ground. I snatched up the bags. Our lives, our future, was what we found or stole on the streets. There was nothing else anymore.

We took his food and ran, back to Gizzy who we had to drag to his feet, and then all the way to our small camp hidden in the park’s dense bushes. Our refuge once the masses under the bridge started getting hungry. It was unchanged from the first night we had set foot in it, a tangled mass of bush and vines that formed a cave-like hollow. It was rain-proof, although nothing stopped the damp from creeping in and laying heavily on all of us.

“What did he have?” she snarled as we cramped into the space.

I sorted through the bags. Bread. Crackers. Some soda cans. Aspirin.

She spat between chapped lips. “Goddamn it all.”

Gizzy reached for the medication but I kept it away from him. He gave off a sour smell, like laundry left in a wet bundle to dry, or the faintly sweet smell of garbage cans in summer time. If you scraped his sweat and tasted it there was probably a proof attached. More than thirty-five bottles of bourbon, vodka, whiskey and random other rotgut had burned through his body faster than he could drink it. I wasn’t sure he had a liver anymore, much less needed to load medication onto it.

But Violence snatched the bottle away from me and counted five pills into her palm. She swallowed them dry, snarled at the bitterness, and only then did she crack open one of the sodas for us to share. She pressed four more aspirin between Gizzy’s lips and then held the soda there for him to drink; he trembled so much that the liquid would have spilled out, but finally she managed to force everything between his chattering teeth. Her one tender moment finished, she filled the air of our hideout with harsh, phlegm-filled coughs. Her diagnosis was as set as Gizzy’s. All the fierce attitude in the world couldn’t undo pneumonia, or hunger, or the realization that winter was coming closer. We could have tried to run south, but there was no promise that frigid death wouldn’t find us between towns, chasing us and smothering us down in the open fields. I could imagine it as though I was watching other refugees walking through the world, lying down in exhaustion as hoarfrost crept over sunken cheeks and dark-circled eyes.

At least in the city, between the hulks that waited for the mistake of people stepping too close, there was still some food.

“How many bottles do we have left?” I could barely understand Gizzy but I understood what he was trying to do.

It would have been faster to walk through an open door, but that was frightening in a way that loosened men’s bladders and their resolve. We’d seen a few people commit suicide that way. Just giving up and trying to get out of the cold. Drinking yourself to death was the slower, easier choice. When you found yourself trapped, sometimes the only thing that could give you comfort was the last thing that was going to save you.

3.

“Gizzy?” He didn’t answer. He wasn’t going to. Fourteen days to this point. Longer than I thought he’d make it, even when he quit drinking at the very end. By that point, I don’t think he realized that he was alive, which was a blessing for all of us. So dead that he didn’t need anything, not to piss or shit, just to breathe one shallow breath after another until his heart stopped fighting.

I’d joked once that he was as solid as a bar fixture, but now, with his body frigid from death and winter, it wasn’t funny anymore.

Violence touched his shoulder but didn’t need any more confirmation than that. The movement made her cough. I could hear the fluid in her lungs fight the convulsive attempt to dispel it. Her illness seemed as alive as those godforsaken buildings. But she kept coughing until my own chest hurt from the effort. Again and again, she forced her lungs to hack up dark gobbets of fluid and mucus and spit them far outside our nest.

“I’ll…” she couldn’t finish until she coughed through a thirty-second outburst. “I’ll cut his clothes off.”

I didn’t argue. Our nest was padded with those scraps. Some we’d found. Some we’d fought for. Every layer put us that much further from the warmth-leeching ground and let us pretend just a little bit more than we might make it.

The deed was done quickly and I dragged him out into the park. There wouldn’t be any burial or homage, just getting his body far enough away that we wouldn’t have to look at him. The thought of a spring thaw was the last thing on my mind. It was barely December and the ground was a solid chunk. I couldn’t bury him; I didn’t want to. I wanted to curl up with the last three bottles of booze and attach my lips leech-like to their tops. I wanted all this to be over.

Buildings stood around the edge of the park in quiet observance. Whatever was inside them could have been gone. It was impossible to tell. All I knew was that we were almost alone. The scattered people we saw in the open moved with frantic speed. As the days passed, the pace grew more desperate. We were running out of time.

“John?” I heard her voice questing from the interior.

“Yeah?” I wasn’t ready to crawl back in there. Not to look into her eyes and see the same fate waiting for me. It’s surprising how fast flesh melts away when you live on trashcan scraps and stolen morsels. How many calories fear steals for its own use.

“I want to go out. Maybe find some, maybe try a couple more pharmacies. Some asshole has to have antibiotics.”

“Sure,” I said to her. It was easier to lie out here. “This close to winter, we might get lucky.”

“Fuck you, too.”

I guess she could hear the lie anyway.

We moved through the parking lots pretty quickly between her spells. A little bit after the sun hit its peak, the sound changed from a cough to a choke. There was nothing I could do to help except beat at her back like the force would propel the sickness out of her. Every strike brought my hand down on a spine cutting sharp from hunger. And when her knees hit the pavement and she struggled against the weight in her chest, I tried to help her.

“Get back! Get away from me.” Another drawn-out rattle.

“I’m trying to…”

“Don’t!”

“You want to die like Gizzy, you stubborn bitch?”

“Don’t.” The well-used knife was back in her hand. It had seen a lot. Things I justified by saying it was them or us. But now, with the tip pointed right at me, I realized I was foolish to have counted Violence and myself as “us.”

“What are you going to do?”

She stared at me. Gaunt cheekbones sliced her face into a ragged version of the woman I remembered. Riot Grrl chic, that was what I’d always associated with her. She was so desperate to be deviant from society and so angry at it. AA meetings, anger management, substance abuse programs: they only held off the inevitable for her. This point right now – whether or not the nightmare happened – this point had always been waiting for her.

“Violence, we can make it.” Corporate-speak bubbled out of my traitorous lips. “We can…”

“Shut up! You and your fucking stupid words. Did they teach you that? Did they tell you that it meant something? How to open your mouth and vomit out drivel? Nothing but useless… fucking useless garbage.” In the middle of her rant she started shivering. Deep, convulsing shudders that almost knocked her down again. “I’m not…” It was like she’d forgotten I was there. “I’m not…” The building closest to us was less than twenty feet away.

Silent. Motionless. It was the most mundane thing I had ever seen. A brick façade and concrete steps led up to the single gaping doorway. Glass fronted, it now waited, open and welcoming if you ignored what lay shattered on the sidewalk. All we had to do was step inside and get warm again. Heat, maybe a stove we could crouch next to and breathe real feeling back into our hands instead of using them as appendages that ached with brittle pain.

“I’m not going to lie down and die.”

She flashed by. Preternaturally strong and without any regard for the attempt I made to stop her.

I remembered her speech at AA. “My name is Violence.” Someone in the crowd snickered once but not again as her blank stare turned on them. She was unapologetic and unforgiving. Her matter-of-fact voice echoed in a room barren of understanding. She was life incarnate, furious and unrelenting, operating by rules which remained as variable and spirited as the woman who wielded them. She was nothing like me. There was this sense of rage in her and I wanted there to be something, anything, in my life that mattered so much to me. Rage was purpose, and at least she had its comfort instead of a fifteen-dollar bottle of hooch and puking into an impersonal toilet.

I’d always envied her. I envied her now. So I didn’t stop her.

Violence’s scream from the building was counterpoint to my own hoarse breathing as I hyperventilated. The darkness boiled out and caught her even as she jumped backwards, her dedication faltering just inside the frame. It caressed her with finger-thin tentacles that should have been as tenuous as the darkness. But I heard the sloppy sound of her skin tearing and blood splashing with wet plops onto her upturned hands. I heard the exhalation as the building disgorged the monster, unpeeling from eggshell walls, leaning towards hot meat. Grasping. Wanting. Feeding.

Her eyes caught mine, full of rage, and she vomited up a mess of bile and blood across the space between us. Bare arms flashed in the last bit of light as she struck out, metal blade slipping across the scaled skin. New scars opened as it struck back, a vicious tug-of-war, but Violence never stopped. She kept on even as her skin opened along these new lines. They bled. I screamed for her. And even as it pulled her skyward, dragged her boots up from the floor, I could not go to her. I could not escape the icy mortification that sent daggers down my back. I could not move.

The wet crunching ended her litany of curses. I had to assume it ended the pain as well.

Buildings that were empty but not empty.

I tried to think of a name for them. Something to call the monsters that lived inside, but it all seemed futile. Who was I? Not a scientist or a dreamer to name something so earth-shattering. I was a drunk who had the bad luck to be outside when the world ended. I wasn’t a fighter or a leader. I was only me. And there was something indefinable about these monsters living in the shadows and the dark places, wrapping the buildings around them like gigantic abalone. Their shells were both our homes and a weapon, something I could not hope to understand, only that it cast us out in a single killing blow.

I might have been the only person left in the world. So maybe the name didn’t matter as no one else would ever hear it. Whatever it was doesn’t matter. It crept into homes and skyscrapers, into the gas station on the corner, and the popsicle stand that only opened in summer. Four walls and a ceiling. It used them to crawl into our world but without a how or a why, a who or a what. There was just that moment sixteen days ago when we became dead men, even those of us who didn’t know it yet.

Maybe we crossed a line somewhere or opened a door. The end result was the same. Gizzy saw it. Violence saw it. And now, without them, I see it too.

I don’t want a drink anymore.

Currently an MFA student, Amanda Underwood has published “Blood Donors Wanted” and “The Hollywood Incident” with The Harrow and “Run Just a Little Bit Faster” with AtomJack Magazine. In addition to writing and working, she chases her children (two-legged and four-legged) around the house. To date her dust bunnies have not eaten anyone, but they’re fattening up nicely.

If you enjoyed her story, let her know by commenting below!

Story art by mimulux.

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10 responses to “Cockroaches, by Amanda Underwood

  1. Excellent effort. At first I thought this was going to be a story like “The Roaches in the Walls” by James Chambers in Hardboiled Cthulhu but instead it was an absorbing piece of post apocalyptic fiction. It would have been at home in Cthulhu’s Reign from DAW.

  2. Like Matt, I was surprised where it went. It was a very interesting if disappointing ending for the characters. As a former smoker, the smoking scene was very real. I am about as old as Gizzy, and open heart surgery has cured me of nicotine. Solid effort

  3. This is one of those stories that frustrates me because the characters don’t do what I would do in the same situation. The forests in the Pacific Northwest are rich and full of food and life, but there’s not much booze in them, and these characters would certainly stick to the city. It was more about Violence than about fear, and the personal appeal really makes the horror hit home.

  4. Sure as hell paints an effective picture of misery and human failings. The building monsters, to me, were a picnic compared to the abysmally low human condition brought forth in all the glorious colors of despair’s palette.
    There were some horrid times in my life ages ago where I got too close a look at bits of the non-life of the human characters in your story. There’s not a tentacled, extra-dimensional, pan-galactic beastie can compare to the ugliness mankind can make for himself. Well, that’s my opinion, anyway, and it’s, unfortunately, not an idly or hypothetically based one.
    Now, are you buying the drinks? Cos I could use a few belts of redeye after reading your story!

  5. Great story! Very real. If you’re writing about Portland Oregon I can picture the locations and the weather (lived here since 1971). The real horror of people without coping skills trying to survive is moving. I look forward to more of your work. And I agree that this would have been perfect for Cthulhu’s Reign from DAW.

  6. Awesome story, Amanda. We are the actual horror story, attached to those things that kill us, UNFORTUNATELY, not as quick as a walk into a building which also spells certain death.

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