The Lingering Remains
He stared up through the tops of elms, their leaves heavy from a recent downpour. Beyond the canopy hung a bruised and blistered sky. He turned his gaze to the ground beside his head, and a leaf-strewn, rain-damp trail came into focus.
What is this place?
He climbed unsteadily to his feet and was hit by a wave of nausea. A rasping groan escaped unbidden from his parched throat. He took a faltering step, then another. Between the fog in his brain and the blood-stained sky, the sense of foreboding was palpable.
How did I get here? What was I doing?
Try as he might he could recall nothing, though the elm grove seemed vaguely familiar.
A fleeting image appeared in his mind – a woman’s laughing face, her long, auburn hair swept back in the breeze. Buildings flashed by out of focus, a striking clash to the clarity of the woman’s exquisite features.
“Tina.” The word came out as a croak. His head drooped, and without warning his chest heaved and he retched loudly. A clot pushed its way up his throat into his mouth, forcing his jaw open. It oozed out and dropped to the ground to nestle among the wet leaves. The crimson glob reminded him of a jellyfish, albeit one grotesquely formed. Its membranous skin repelled the touch of the leaves.
Again, Tina’s face swam into his mind. He remembered her, and it pained him. He struggled to lift his lead-weight hand to his temple in a vain attempt to ease the pressure inside his skull. His fingertips were numb, his skin rubbery.
Something between his shoulder blades felt wrong, uncomfortable. He swiped a leaden hand at his back, but the awkward limb protested, flopping ineffectually. A few more attempts and his fingers caught in the torn fabric of his shirt at the centre of his back, before falling back to hang at his side. He looked at his fingertips; they were slick with blood. But there was no pain.
It was so hard to think, but he forced himself to assess the situation: He’d vomited a blood-clot. There was a deep wound between his shoulders. And a tingling numbness dampening every nerve in his body.
But no pain.
A rising dread crept upon him as the wrongness of it all overwhelmed his murky thoughts. He forced the fear aside with the memory of Tina’s laughter as she drove. Yes – she’d been driving. The Chrysler’s top was rolled down and the sun was shining. He was sat in the passenger seat. Holding onto the image, he mentally laid it over the leaf-strewn ground like a shroud, Tina’s face puckered and pinched by the spiny shells of horse chestnuts and curled leaf-fronds. A darker puddle on the trail stained Tina’s laughing mouth, filling it with glistening blood. Was that his blood? From the wound on his back? Had he collapsed here and lay bleeding out into the dirt? Could blood-loss cause amnesia?
No, I’m in shock. That’s all.
Surely that was all…
A scream from up ahead broke his stupor like a siren call. On impulse he moved, the nausea threatening to drop him with every movement as his awkward steps kicked through the muddied and bloodied leaves.
There were noises within the foliage, but no more screams – just the cracking of twigs amid guttural, animal sounds. He ignored them, intent on following the trail toward where the scream had come from. A gap in the trees ahead; an arch of daylight within the shadowed canopy, widening as he drew closer and stepped into the light – so bright! Skyscrapers towered into the charred embers of the sky. Plumes of smoke drifted from broken windows, flames licked at blackened girders. The distant din of countless alarms and car horns seemed flat, lacking urgency as if it were already far too late for the warnings.
Purgatory, it seemed, had come to Earth.
He loped from the trees into a wide, open courtyard between the burning buildings. Beyond was a parking lot, half its spaces filled with vehicles. A silver convertible blocked the way into the lot, its top twisted, its hood crumpled against the rear corner of a station wagon. The convertible was empty, the driver’s door on the far side wedged open and bent against the asphalt.
An explosion rumbled in the distance. He peered along the street at the broken buildings. Plumes of black smoke spilled from a high-rise, the top of its steel skull smashed open from the pressure of the blast. He imagined his own head might burst just the same, the way it was throbbing.
Further down the street, people were running, shouting, screaming – blurry figures flitting among the street’s smoking wreckage. As he watched them, he felt a moment of disconnectedness. He was an interloper in their ruined world. None of this belonged to him. Not any more.
Not Purgatory, then. Perhaps the Apocalypse.
A muffled noise pulled his attention back to the convertible. He started towards it, cursing his awkward limbs, concentrating so hard on keeping his thoughts lucid. His slow movements took him ever closer. Something about that car; something familiar.
It’s the Chrysler. It’s the god-damned Chrysler. It’s our car. Mine and Tina’s…
A sharp rending began behind the Chrysler, around the driver’s side. His torpid gait took him onwards, slowly, dragging his feet through a glistening spread of oil that had leaked across the asphalt from the rear of the convertible. The rending was joined by a wet ripping that continued for a long moment, punctuated by a gristly snap and the slurping of an animal at feed.
He lifted his face once more to the bloody sky. The fog in his brain was still thick, but Tina’s face formed in the clouds and mouthed a word –
– before fading away.
Jeff. Jeff and Tina. Like it always had been, before the skies exploded and rained death upon the world. He remembered that now.
Another step took him around the driver’s side, his muddied sneaker sliding in the slick oil.
No – it wasn’t oil. It was blood.
A grey-suited figure with badly-scuffed shoes was squatting over a woman’s body, obscuring her face and upper torso. A loose, white dress; torn, now mostly red. A pattern of rose petals, drenched in blood. One of her sandals was missing, scarlet streaks and spatters on her jade-green polished toenails and pale, slender ankles.
Another step took him around the hunched, twitching figure. It ignored him, intent on its work. Then its victim came fully into view … and he saw her ruined face.
Her mouth was wide open. Too wide. Far too wide. Her cheek had been chewed off, leaving a ragged hole and a row of bloodied teeth under a button nose and large, brown eyes – now glazed in death – framed by a mess of auburn hair.
The squatting figure’s fingers were hooked into her exposed breast. It dipped its head and sank its teeth into the flesh, tearing out a chunk. As it chewed it turned to face him. The side of its head was disfigured, crushed. One eye had begun to cataract. The other on the crushed side was swollen and blood-filled, protruding from the socket like the eyes of road-kill. It was the ultimate expression of WHAT THE FUCK? The milky eye stared at him with greed and fury, not with the glassy non-stare of death. For it should have been dead, this thing. It should have been.
The fury was transitory, ebbing as gluttony won the battle; the animal had sized up the interruption and found Jeff to be no threat to its prize. It turned away from him, back to the woman with the tawny irises –
– mousy locks –
The gaping mouth-hole. The ravaged body.
The figure tore another chunk and thrust it into its mouth with ravenous abandon. Jeff lunged at it, hauling it from the body and shoving it aside. It fell to its back, hissing and scratching at the air with grime-covered hands.
A rage took Jeff and he fell onto the monster, pinning it to the ground and sinking his teeth into its throat, ripping chunks away. He thrust his fingers into the flesh of the neck, pushing them in deep, pulling the opening wider and wider as blood pumped out over his face and hands.
The creature clutched and clawed at him, its ruined face pressed against Jeff’s, its fingernails and teeth gouging and tearing into him. And still there was no pain, just a very wrong numbness and a red mist sprayed across his vision; whether real or imagined, he couldn’t tell and didn’t care.
He forced his fingers deeper into the torn throat and curled them around the spinal column, pulling, yanking with a strength his nerveless fist should not have been capable of. Something gave and the throat came away, leaving the head connected only to the loosened spine. With both hands, he pulled and twisted hard, and wrenched the head fully off. Its teeth gnashed together and the milky eye glared at him. He tossed the head away, and watched it roll under the station wagon. With the head severed, the body had gone limp, but he continued to tear strips of flesh from it, hefting the torso towards him and burying his face into the ravaged opening where the head had been, gobbling chunks of the raw meat into a mouth that could taste nothing, gulping it down a throat that felt nothing, until –
– in the corner of his vision something made him pause. A delicate pair of feet, one sandaled, the other bare; green painted toenails; smears of blood marring the smooth skin. With a guttural growl he hurled the suited carcass to the ground. His gaze drifted along the lightly tanned legs, over the hem of the loose, Summer dress onto the opened mess at her abdomen – the rent flesh, the partially-eaten intestines nestled in the opening like a…
Like a meal.
He squeezed his eyes shut, tried to take a deep breath.
But there was none to be had.
He opened his eyes. The shape of one small breast pressed against the soaked, diaphanous material. The raw, red neck, the destroyed lower face and the tawny eyes, the auburn hair.
Oh, Tina. What have they done to you?
He reached for her, his unfeeling, gore-covered hands leaving smears on the few areas of unblemished skin on her slender frame. He lowered his head and rested his cheek on her shoulder. He couldn’t smell her mutilated flesh, but he could sense its freshness. His vision blurred as the red mist deepened, and in his mind the redness became rose-coloured lips, parted in a laughing smile, framing slightly crooked teeth. Her sun-dappled hair flirted with the breeze. Her eyes gleamed.
The sensation of fresh blood and meat so close…
Her lips formed silent words –
I love you, Jeff
– then the explosion happened, and the rains came; thick, dirty globules, quickly turning into a torrent. As he had reached for the actuator to retract the hardtop, Tina swerved, trying to avoid a suited figure fleeing across the road. But despite her efforts the Chrysler struck the figure and careened onto the side-walk. Something smashed into the side of the car and Jeff was thrown from the car, high and wide toward a nearby elm grove.
And that was all.
He lifted his head from her shoulder and touched his mouth to her temple. He took a hold of her dislocated jaw and pushed it back into place. Bones ground as the gaping maw closed. The ravaged cheek still exposed her teeth and gums, but her lips were back together in a semblance of beauty. He pressed his own lips against hers. His hand stroked the side of her head, his fingers carelessly tousling her matted hair.
A rasping sigh rattled in his throat; not breath, but his useless vocal chords trying to form her name. He stared into Tina’s eyes. The eyelids fluttered, narrowed. He sensed her body shifting under him, tensing. Her lips parted and the jaw dropped open again, moving uselessly. A gurgling hiss frothed blood through the hole in her face. Tina’s last true words came to him again –
I love you, Jeff
– and he pulled her to a sitting position, caressed her with arms that no longer felt and told her he loved her, too. But it didn’t sound like I love you, it sounded more like the mournful mewling of a dying dog.
Or the impossible growling of a dead dog.
He pulled away from her and stared long into her eyes. She was there. Oh, God, she was still inside that torn body. His Tina.
I’m sorry, my love.
He took her neck and sank his teeth into it, ripping and rending as she twitched in his embrace. But he didn’t swallow; he let the flesh fall from his mouth, chunk by chunk. He would not eat Tina.
Mercifully, as the world slowly ended around them, she stopped moving. Jeff lowered his cheek to her breast, closed his eyes and waited.
Waited for the lingering remains of love to give way to the long, true death.
© Copyright 2015 Scott Kaelen