At the last minute, I entered a Halloween short story contest at UPLITERATE. There are about 20 stories entered. If you like Halloween stories, check it out. Unfortunately, it appears that you have to register with the site to vote, but you can read the stories without having to sign in.
I’m posting my entry below. It’s a new perspective on a familiar theme. Well, hopefully you’ll find it a new perspective; otherwise it’s just another replay of a common theme, and that carries less impact.
The Last Monster
The lady he’d been staying with inserted the needle into the big vein in Eli’s forearm. The warm feeling spread up his arm to his shoulder. From there, the sleepy warmth spread across his chest to his neck. Up his neck, it cascaded around the underside of his skull. His whole body felt warm, relaxed, numb.
The lady sat back in the broken chair beside Eli’s bed. “How’s that?” she asked. “Feels good to be going my way, doesn’t it?”
The lady was older. She wasn’t pretty, especially in her preferred white smock with old blood smears and other assorted stains. She wasn’t the companion Eli would have chosen, if he’d had a choice. A young man in his position couldn’t be choosy. When one finds himself down and out, caught between worlds, to neither of which he belongs, he clings to anyone he believes will take him into theirs.
Eli never felt much like talking when they were doing this. It was a pleasant stupor and he preferred to just fall back into it. Nonetheless, he worked up a shallow nod. “Yeah. Feels good.”
The ramshackle room was the only serviceable space in this house. House was a bad name for it. Maybe once it had merited that name, but now it was a shack. The useful room once connected to three more, but those were now in such deplorable condition they were completely boarded off.
The lady leaned forward in her chair. “Are you hungry, Eli?” Eli shook his head. At least he thought he did. He couldn’t really tell for sure. He often found himself too groggy to have an appetite, but the lady always asked if he wanted anything. It was odd how she kept offering food when there wasn’t much to be had in the first place.
Neither of them worked. She told him she used to be a nurse, or a doctor, or something ridiculous to him when he had the wherewithal to think about it. The very idea of work seemed ridiculous now. Work? Nobody worked anymore.
There would be no electricity, except the lady somehow found a generator. He could hear its constant hum, but he couldn’t figure out where she kept it. How she got gasoline for it was an even greater mystery. Mostly, he didn’t care. He’d be fine with no electricity at all, as long as she kept supplying the needles. She valued it though. It ran her little fridge. “Refrigeration is absolutely vital to us,” she once told him.
She had a big sheet of steel she put over the window at night so nobody could break in. She took it down now, revealing a window frame long devoid of glass. The morning sunlight seeped into the room. He preferred it darker, but she liked the natural light, so rather than rousing himself to complain, he turned his head away.
He fell asleep.
She must have gone out. He woke to the noise of her coming back in. It was still light out, but the light no longer penetrated the room. She set down her backpack and emptied it – mostly canned goods and some oatmeal bars. There was nothing cold. Her little fridge wasn’t for food.
He sat up and watched her unpack. “Get any beer or anything?”
She shook her head at a stupid question. “Beer’s a waste. I got stuff we need.”
“I don’t need baked beans.”
“You need something. How ‘bout an oatmeal bar?”
He shook his head.
“Come on, Eli. You’ve got to eat something.” She approached, holding out the bar. “Please, for my sake, eat something. Please try.”
He thought she might cry, and this time he felt bad about that. He accepted the bar and took a small bite. It tasted awful, but he choked it down. He wanted to take another bite to please her, but he couldn’t make himself do it. He set the bar beside him on the bed.
“What’s the matter? You don’t like it?”
“Nah. Now if we had some meat, maybe.”
She shook her head at him, or maybe at herself. “Oh Eli, you know there’s no meat, not for us.”
“Yeah.” She almost pleaded as she said the word: “Us.”
He snorted. “You mean our kind?”
She nodded, but without certainty.
They stared at each other over her uncertainty. He could have stared at her indefinitely, but she turned away. She hefted her steel sheet up and fixed it over the window. She was one strong chick, but she had to be to survive the kind of life she lived. “We’d better batten down the hatches,” she said to him over her shoulder. “Your degenerate friends will be back tonight.”
“You shouldn’t call them that.”
She turned to get a good look at his face. “Degenerate or friends?”
He turned away. “I don’t know,” he mumbled.
“Whoever they are, they’ll be back.”
He turned back to her with renewed confidence. “If it wasn’t for the stuff in your fridge, they’d probably leave you alone.”
Her eyes flashed anger. “That stuff in the fridge is all we got. There’s no point to living without that stuff in the fridge.” She closed her eyes and ran a hand over her face. Her eyes were softer when she opened them. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I guess I just need something to eat.”
She opened a can of beans and stuck a spoon in the middle. “I don’t suppose you’d like some?” He shook his head. She sat in her broken chair and began to eat from the can.
When she finished her supper she made her evening rounds of the shack, assuring herself they were secure as could be. Satisfied she had done all she could to keep them safe, she got something from the fridge and invited Eli to relax on the bed.
Eli hesitated. He loved the warm feeling it gave him and the way it allowed him to let go of all the troubles in the world, but lately he wondered if it was good for him in the long run. She always told him it would all work out fine for him, and she used to be a doctor or nurse or something, so she should know. He almost giggled at his own gullibility. Yeah, she was primo at injecting that good stuff, but that hardly made her a doctor. She could have been any damned thing. How was she to prove it now?
“Come on, baby, relax,” she coaxed. “You’re ready for another dose.”
He scooted back from her. “I don’t know. Maybe I should just hold off that stuff for a while, chill out, find out who I’m supposed to be.”
She looked like she wanted to scream at him, maybe hit him, but she bit her lip. Somehow, she kept her frustration inside, all of it except for the quiver in her bottom lip. “Don’t bail on me now, baby. We need this. You, me, and God knows how many other people out there. Just stick with me a little while longer. It’ll be okay. I promise.”
The quiver did it. He’d never seen her tremble before. Maybe he meant more to her than she did to him. One more time couldn’t hurt. He lay back and let her put in the needle.
The warm spread over him, bringing a temporary wave of peace. Everything was okay, just like she said it would be. He closed his eyes and drifted, enjoying this moment of pure humanness without fear. If only he could stay this way always. If only.
He was started out of his rapture by a thud against the front door. The thud was followed by pounding. “Eli!” a voice from without called. “Eli, come out!”
He was still too numb to rise, or even to fully appreciate what he was hearing. He saw her kneel down beside the bed. Memory told him she was retrieving the shotgun she kept there.
“Eli, bro, come back to us,” the voice commanded. “Leave that bitch alone and come back to your family. We’re the ones who care about you, not her. She’ll ruin you if you let her.”
She went to the door and yelled back. “Why can’t you just leave us alone? We’re not hurting you. Eli wants to stay here. Leave him alone!”
“We’ll leave you alone, bitch,” the voice came back. “Just give us your fridge and we’ll leave you alone.”
“That’s ours and we’re keeping it.”
“You can’t keep it forever,” the voice returned. “Maybe we’ll come in and take it.”
“I hope you like buckshot!”
The door rattled as the voice threw his shoulder into it. The steel over the window clanged, pelted with rocks. There was noise in one of the boarded off rooms. She peered through a loophole purposely made in the boards. Assessing the situation in the darkness beyond, she inserted the shotgun into the hole and fired a round. The shot was answered by a yelp and a curse from the other room, followed by receding noise and silence.
“I guess they don’t like buckshot after all,” she said.
“We’ll be back, Eli,” the voice from outside shouted. “We won’t give up on you, bro.”
Eli raised himself up at this sentiment. He cast confused eyes at the lady.
She eased him back down with her hand. “They don’t care about you. It’s the fridge they won’t give up on.”
“No, they’re my friends,” he contended. “They’re just like me.”
“Maybe they used to be,” she replied, “before I found you.”
“You’re trying to change me.” His eyes searched his own memory. “My father used to tell me one day I’d meet a woman who would try to change me.”
She huffed. “Your father was right.”
“Why are you doing it?”
She shrugged. “Well, I guess because I kinda like you. Besides, according to your old man, it’s what women do. Gotta stick to the script, right?”
He stared at her, perhaps trying to figure out if the road with her were the right one.
She rolled up her sleeve. “They’re gone for tonight. Why don’t you get some sleep while I do what I’ve gotta do?” She wrapped a rubber strap around her arm and tied it tight. After arranging her paraphernalia, she leaned back into a broken chair and inserted the needle into her own forearm.
He lay on his side and watched her as she closed her eyes and rhythmically squeezed and relaxed her fist. He couldn’t deny there was something likeable about her, but he wasn’t sure he trusted her.
He woke to the noise of her taking down the steel sheet from the window. It was overcast outside. That suited him fine.
She was a strong woman, but today she struggled with the sheet. When she turned around, he noted she looked pale. “You all right?” he asked.
“Yeah. I’m fine, just a little tired.” She sat down in her broken chair to catch her breath. “I gotta go out this morning, but I won’t be gone long.” She reached for her boots.
“What about my dose?” he asked.
She sighed. “Well, here’s the thing. We’re running low. It’s getting hard to keep up a good stock day after day. It wears a body out, you know?”
“You’ve been cutting back on my dose for days now. I could tell.”
“Yeah, well, I do what I can. I give you all I can afford to spare. Anyway, I figure we’ll skip this morning and do one later, okay?”
“What am I supposed to do while you’re gone?”
“You like to read?”
She dug out some musty magazines from beneath the corner table and tossed them on the bed. “Here’s some reading material.” He picked one up: Journal of the American Medical Association. Well, she read like a doctor anyway. When he looked back up, she was already outside, locking the door behind her.
In his rare, wakeful state, it occurred to him to watch her from the window. She disappeared behind the back of the house. He heard a sound like someone pulling at a back wall, followed by the sound of activity on the roof. After a minute, the back wall sound returned, then stopped. She came back in sight, carrying a five-gallon Jerry Jug, then walked down the empty, early-morning street.
The generator was on the roof. No wonder it hadn’t been destroyed. She was clever enough to be a doctor.
He tried to read for a while, but he never enjoyed reading, and this medical stuff was way too boring. He ate some canned pasta. It was horrible, but he made himself eat it. He needed his strength. He hadn’t had meat since she brought him here. Lousy as her food was, he needed something.
As he cast about for some other amusement, inspiration struck. Why shouldn’t he go outside for a while? A short trip outdoors would do him no harm. At least, it would give him something else to look at.
He couldn’t find his shoes, but that didn’t matter. He wouldn’t go far. He crossed to the door, drew back the bolt and pulled. The door wouldn’t budge. He pulled harder, with no greater result. She must have set up some device on the outside to keep him from opening the door when she was gone. “That bitch!” he moaned. “She locked me in.”
He ran to the window, ready to bust out the wooden cross grille that no longer held any glass. As he drew back his arm to pop out the wood, he realized what he’d not noticed before: the cross was not a window grille but an intersection of steel bars, firmly bolted into the side of the house. She was holding him hostage.
He returned to the bed, seething. He wouldn’t try to escape. He’d wait for her to come open the door. Then he’d leave. Maybe he’d give her hell first, and if she tried to stop him, who knew, he might have to hit her. That would be up to her.
He took the shells out of her shotgun. There was no telling how crazy she might get when he left.
Around noontime, he heard the sound at the back wall again. He heard her walk across the roof, then climb back down the back wall. A minute later her key was in the door. She looked exhausted when she came in.
She threw herself into her chair, breathing hard. His eyes hadn’t left her since she came in. “What?” she asked after she’d caught her breath, “Is my lipstick smeared or something?”
“Why?” was all he asked.
“Why are you doing this?”
She rolled her eyes. “Can you be more specific?”
“Why are you holding me here against my will?”
“Then you won’t mind if I just get up and go.” He slid toward the edge of the bed nearest the door.
She lurched herself forward and held out both her hands. “Wait!” All the sarcasm was gone from her voice. “Maybe I am keeping you here, but it’s only to protect you.”
“From them, from you.”
She sighed: this time it was a pleading sigh. “Look. You’re a young guy torn between two roads right now. I get that you’re confused. I get that you don’t know who to trust. But you have to believe me; I’m truly, truly looking out for your best interests.”
“You keep me locked up. Why should I trust you?”
She came to the bed and sat beside him. “Because I’m all you’ve got.”
He let out a puff. “Really?”
“Really. And you’re all I’ve got. All we’ve got is each other.” She rested her forehead on his shoulder. “There’s nothing left in the world worth living for if we don’t stick together.”
“You’re not all I’ve got.” He nodded toward the outside. “I’ve got them. They’d take me back in a heartbeat.”
“Them?” She raised her head, showing the anger returning to her eyes. “What have they ever done for you besides let you run around like a rat in the dark? Not one of them can hold their heads high in the light of day. I may not have much going for me these days, but I can do that much.” She expelled a long breath and shook her head. “Did they ever provide for you like I do? Do they walk miles carrying a heavy jug of gas, just so they can keep the fridge with your stuff in it going? What could they possibly give you that I don’t?”
The anger left her face, driven off by a gentler expression. He just wished he could tell if it were real, like the anger. “How about this?” she began. “When you get to feeling a little better, we’ll go out together. You can help me with my errands. I’d love to have your help. Just think about it: once you’re feeling better, and we’re both going full tilt, we’ll be able to keep more in the fridge. Then we’ll be ahead of the game instead of falling behind like we are now. We’ll be able to do so much more!”
“Maybe I should just go.”
She leapt up and placed a hand on each of his shoulders before he could rise. “Please! Please!” She teetered on the verge of tears. “Think about it for a minute. Let me give you a little dose while you think it over. What could that hurt? You look like you could really use a dose. What’s the harm?”
Another dose would bring down his stress level, and even when he wanted to hate her, he couldn’t bear making her cry. He shook his head at himself. “Okay, one more dose. But after that, it’s a whole new ballgame.”
Her eyes brightened. “Okay. I’ll get it. Let’s just get through tonight, then we’ll take it one day at a time.” She went to the fridge and returned with the stuff. “I can only give you a half dose. We’ve gotta space it out. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to keep up.”
“It’s okay,” he told her.
The needle went in and the warmth spread through him. The half dose didn’t make him as numb as usual. He retained the capacity to consider her, sitting in her forlorn chair. She was the numb one today.
He dozed. When he opened his eyes again, his first sight was of her sleeping in her chair. She didn’t usually sleep until afterward. She wasn’t well. When he thought about the way she ran herself ragged keeping up this miserable existence, he didn’t wonder at her poor condition. In spite of everything, he felt sorry for her. It almost made him want to stay.
Rolling over, he was surprised to discover it was night. It was night because he could see the inky blackness through the open window. She had fallen asleep before putting up the sheet. Now would be the perfect time to go. His friends would find him right away. He wouldn’t be alone.
Maybe he should put up the sheet for her first. He shouldn’t leave her unprotected. He doubted he could do it quietly. He’d wake her, and she’d give him trouble. Still, it wasn’t right to leave her vulnerable.
As he lay in his indecisiveness, a rock flew through the open window and struck the wall beside her chair. This roused her, but before she could shake off sleep another rock grazed her head, opening a bleeding gash on her temple.
She leapt up and hurried to window. “Eli! Help me!” she yelled as she hefted the sheet over the opening. Eli slid off the bed and lent a hand. All the numbness was gone from him. The half dose hadn’t lasted long. A rock clanged against the sheet as they raised it into place.
They set it on its rest. As she fastened it in place, Eli tiptoed toward the door. She turned her head toward him as he drew the bolt. “No, Eli! You don’t know what you’re doing!” She lunged at him, pulling at his hands, but he was determined.
“Stop trying to turn me into another one of you!” Eli screamed at her as he fought her off. “I don’t wanna be like you! Everybody hates you! You’re a monster!” Her weakened state allowed him to push her away. She fell down at the foot of the bed.
Eli turned the knob. She grabbed her shotgun in one hand and lunged for him with the other. He was already halfway out the door. One of the others was halfway in. She grabbed at Eli’s arm, but he ripped it away and was gone. Only the one determined to come in was left in the doorway. She pointed the shotgun barrel into his gruesome face and squeezed the trigger, expecting to see the permanently-dilated pupils, the brittle white hair, and the pealing, scaly skin explode all at once.
She was rewarded with an impotent click.
“Meat! Meat!” the half-human thing exclaimed as it’s ragged fingernails reached for her flesh.
“Forget the meat,” a voice behind commanded. “Destroy the fridge!”
The trespasser had neither option. The lady flipped the gun around and landed a solid blow between his reptilian eyes. The force sent him sprawling into those behind him. She dropped her weapon and slammed the door closed before they could recover their momentum.
She threw the bolt and slammed her back against the door. Her overtaxed legs slid from under and she wilted down to a sitting position. Her face burned under a mixture of blood and sweat.
Eli was gone. That meant the end of the world.
It had taken a long time to find him, and after all this time, the odds of finding another who was not too far gone were slim. It would take more than she alone could produce to recover any who were further mutated. Even Eli had pushed her to her limits.
If she could have gotten Eli all the way back, there would have been two of them. Then they could have both contributed to reverting harder cases. It would have been a long shot, but it was hope.
Now, Eli was gone, and with him the world.
The mutants had won and they didn’t even know it. Once they got Eli, they didn’t need to destroy her fridge. The doctor crawled to the useless appliance and opened the door. In her hand she took a half-full, pint bag of her own blood. Inside the bag, squished the serum that might have saved the world. On the outside of the bag fell equally useless drops of mixed blood, sweat, and tears.