The Sky Below (Chapter Ten)

It’s been a month since Chapter Nine and again sorry for that. Figuring out a writing schedule with my new work schedule has been a little tricky. I’m getting more sleep which is great, but I’m not always at my peak writing shape in the evenings. Plus I’m moving my office into the basement which will give me about three times the space (and a new desk), but the moving process itself is taking up time and energy (even planning energy). Anyway, hope you enjoy this latest installment. I’m thinking that the next chapter will be an interlude that will interrupt the flow of the main story for a little bit, and then we’ll get back to the adventures of these four.

The story so far:

Bethany, a lawyer just wanting to enjoy a donut and a cheap cup of coffee, is caught in the mall when her world is turned upside-down. She teams up with Claudia, a Dunkin Donuts cashier, in an attempt to find out what’s going on and avoid the roving looters who are using the disaster as an excuse for mayhem.

Bethany has tried and failed to get in touch with her sister Grace, who was trying to call her just before disaster struck. Having narrowly avoided a group of thugs in a sporting goods store, Claudia and Bethany make their way down a service hallway and into the maintenance stairwell. Their ascent is cut short when the thugs discover them…

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CHAPTER TEN

“Kiss your knees, bitch!” the skinhead with the baseball bat screamed at Bethany, while the man with the combat boots, presumably their leader, wrapped duct tape around her hands. Her fingers were interlocked under her knees, a position that forced her to lean forward, exposing the skin on her lower back and hiking the skirt halfway up her thigh. The boots wearing thug ran his hand down her leg, beginning along her thigh and moving slowly down to her calf. He smiled the whole time, his sweaty hands leaving behind a trail of moisture that made her shudder with disgust.

Already she could see he thought of himself as the charmer. Moments before he’d restrained baseball bat and bloody shirt from knocking her senseless after the stunt she pulled in the doorway. Claudia had been a couple of steps behind her when Bethany fell through the door. Bloody shirt had made a move to jump down into the stairwell, but Bethany had wrapped an arm around his ankle, sending his full weight tumbling on top of her. Claudia had taken advantage of those precious seconds and had practically flown up several flights of stairs until she was out of sight.

Bethany didn’t blame Claudia; she would have done the same thing if she’d been in her place. If Claudia had tried to save her they’d both be sitting here tied up. She would come back, Bethany was almost sure of it. She was coming back.

Blood from the boy’s shirt had stained Bethany’s left shoulder, and the crush of his weight knocked the wind out of her. She felt like she’d bruised or broken most of her ribs. She coughed and wheezed for nearly half a minute, while the young man tried to kick his way off her. In the end, combat boots had pulled his compatriot off Bethany, even offering her a hand up, which she refused, even though it meant another half minute of the men watching as she struggled to stand.

Back in the present the leader was finishing his tape job. “There we are, my dear. Isn’t that much better?” he said, the back of his fingers brushing her calf as he pulled away.

“Go to hell,” Bethany spit out through clenched teeth.

“Quiet, whore!” Baseball bat hadn’t settled on a favorite gender slur for her yet, but she was sure he’d get there.

“That’s enough!” Boots said his voice deeper and more resonate than she would have expected from a kid his age. Just as quickly his affect shifted to a low warm whisper.

“You’ll have to forgive him. We’re new at this and are still a little rough on the protocol.”

“Why are you doing this?” Bethany asked trying to sound less scared than she was.

“Because it doesn’t matter anymore,” the young man grinned. “You want me to go to hell? Lady, if we’re not already there, then where do you think we are?”

“We’re wasting our time,” bloody shirt said, “Let’s just kill her like we did the fucking little-league coach.”

The young man shook his head, “There’s such a thing as a sense of proportion. We killed the manager because he refused to give us the end of the world discount. He was holding on to the archaic notion that money or property still had value in this new world. But her,” he took an appraising look at Bethany, “she still has quite a lot of value.”

“She looks frigid to me,” bat-boy observed.

“She’s just getting to know us, that’s all,” combat boots answered, “She’ll warm up to us once we’ve had a chance to get acquainted.”

“Whatever man, we just need to get out of here,” bloody shirt scoffed.

The young man put a hand on his compatriot’s shoulder, “I assure you we will have time for all of our pharmacological errands. The hospital is only a few blocks from here. Even underground we should be able to get there in a few hours.”

‘The hospital,’ Bethany thought, ‘what the hell could they want there?’

“Your friend is right,” Bethany said. “There’s no point staying here. This building wasn’t designed to hang upside down.”

“Did anybody ask you?!” Bloody shirt’s tone had shifted from vague exasperation with his boss, to open and violent hostility.

Boots must have sensed the danger as well, but his tone remained calm. “If you want to move things along, why don’t you find that Latina our friend was climbing with? She can’t have gone far.”

Bat-boy chuckled and grinned back at boots, “You never know, man. Those wetbacks know how to get out of some tight spaces.”

Boots nodded, “Nothing the two of you can’t handle. I’ll take good care of our new arrival; keep her company until you find her friend.”

The two thugs split off in different directions looking for Claudia, leaving Bethany alone with boots. Bethany wasn’t sure if the situation had just become more or less dangerous. Boot’s hold on the brutality of other men seemed tenuous at best, so keeping them occupied was probably in her best interest. But every time he grinned at her, she felt a cold chill.

She needed to keep him talking, distract him long enough for Claudia to do something.

Evidently he was interested in breaking the ice as well. “Well my dear, we haven’t been formally introduced yet, and since it’s just the two of us we might as well be friendly. I’m Zane. What’s your name?”

She’d seen a lot of hostage situations on TV. The general consensus of all them seemed to be that the first thing you needed to do was get your captor to see you as a person. Tell them something personal about yourself, appeal to their humanity. And that started with your name. But even as she said it, the words tasted like ashes. He repeated it back to her, chewing on every syllable. This was a sound-bite that would remain in her memory long after this prick got what was coming to him.

“Bethany. You don’t look like you work in a donut shop. What’d you used to do for a living?”

She hadn’t thought about her job in the past tense yet, though the demand for lawyers had probably sharply declined following the events of the morning. Telling him her particular job wouldn’t do much to humanize her, but she couldn’t refuse to answer either. She had to keep him talking. He would slip up. She just had to give it time.

“I work for Culfe, Holter and Greenwald downtown.”

“Y’know I knew you were a lawyer, Bethany,” Zane said, sitting cross-legged on the ceiling a couple of feet away. From this position he looked like what he was, just a kid, leaning back on his hands without a care in the world. “That building’s just a stone’s throw away from my old church.”

“You went to church?” Bethany couldn’t help the question.

“What’s that old saying, ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’? I sit before you a hooligan, a hustler, a man of violence. Yet didn’t Jesus spend his time with tax collectors and sinners? No, Bethany, I have strayed far from the flock of my redeemer, but I still remember the words that pompous old windbag Father Marcado used to say every Sunday. ‘The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.’ Or put another way, ‘up is down and down is up.’”

“That’s an awfully literal interpretation,” she responded after a moment’s pause. “You think God was always going to flip the world like a pancake?”

Zane grinned again, the longer hairs of his mustache hanging over his pursed lips. “That was the thing I always liked about the good Father. Sometimes he would go on and on about the spiritual meaning behind something, especially when he had a particular axe he wanted to grind. But mostly he just played it straight. The Bible isn’t a metaphorical book; beneath all the poetry there’s a lot of cold hard fact. If God or the Devil didn’t flip the world, then who did?”

“Maybe it was us,” Bethany replied, the quickness of her answer surprising her.

Zane laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh. Phlegm rattled in the back of his throat, and he coughed several times as he regained his breath. “That’d be a hell of a thing, wouldn’t it? We didn’t bake ourselves to death, or nuke ourselves into oblivion, we just flipped ourselves off.”

Bethany wasn’t sure why, but she felt like defending her answer, “I read once that if every nuclear weapon ever created was detonated, we could knock the Earth off its axis by half a degree.”

Zane chuckled again, “Maybe, but you and I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it. There was no explosion, no flash of light, no whoosh of air, nothing. One moment the world was right-side up, the next it was upside-down. Man can’t do anything that cleanly.”

“You see this?” he said pulling out a small joint. “This is natural, this is God given. Grows out of the Earth and is rolled and lit and brings you to another place. Man only knows how to create highs with chemicals and powders, dark crystals. Those are artificial sweeteners compared to this beauty. Sure we can make powders that knock you down twice as hard or twice as long, but it’s not clean. You worry about buildings pulling out of the ground, but what about plants? Maybe trees with deep roots can hang on, get water from somewhere, but this?” He pinched the tip of the joint between his fingers, “this will dry up and blow away, just like you and I.”

Bethany wasn’t sure if it was Zane’s ‘pharmacological regimen’ or just a delusional personality that was driving these ramblings. Was a man’s sanity like gravity, something that should be solid and dependable, but that can apparently shift without warning? On a different day he’d be saying these things in a Case Western dorm room while getting high with his buddies. But he was saying them to her, and she couldn’t even see him properly. Resting her head sideways on her knees felt too intimate, too relaxed. Yet it was an awful strain to try to hold her neck up. She could always bury her face, but that would be an invitation for him to come over and try to coax her out.

She was angry, not just at the threats and the violence, but that Zane had deprived her of a way to properly express her anger. She could thrash, she could scream, but she couldn’t make him see her fury. She wanted to force him back to reality, not this juiced up pseudo post-apocalyptic fantasy, but to a world with hard truths and consequences for actions.

“She’s long gone, Zane.” Baseball bat said. Bethany looked up with a start. She hadn’t heard either of them return. “Craig found a couple of crowbars in a toolbox. We should be able to get that sewer access open.”

“That’s excellent news, isn’t it Bethany?” Zane said.

“So you’ve made friends then,” baseball bat said, “guess that means she’s coming with us?”

“I don’t know,” Zane said, considering. “You want to come with us, Bethany?”

The glare was worth the neck pain, “And how exactly do you expect me to walk tied-up like this?”

Baseball bat moved swiftly. The knife came out of nowhere and flicked open in a flash. She felt a light scrape and quick downward pressure as he cut the tape. He grabbed her left wrist roughly as he pulled her up, a little trickle of blood already running down her palm. Her other arm was contained and re-taped behind her back before she’d even regained her balance.

Then she was falling forward, the pressure on her wrists suddenly gone. She took a stutter-step and managed to plant her feet in front of her. She turned slowly, expecting to see bat-boy laughing at shoving her forward, but he wasn’t there.

Bethany suspected that even if she had learned his name she would have found a way to derive satisfaction from the sight before her. Names can only confer so much humanity. We give them to animals after all. Whatever his name was, he no longer had any need of it, not with an arrow sticking out of his chest.

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All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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