(Sanctuary - a new short story by my alter ego, Nick Hallum, is now available for free on Amazon for a limited time only. While it is free on Amazon, I'm also making it available for free here on BookLikes. Be warned -- it's a little creepy!)
A Halloween Tale
by Nicholas Hallum
The neighborhood went dark at noon on a Thursday. The music in the air stopped. Mr. Renicker’s grown-up daughter Shanna had a stereo playing punk rock from her second story bedroom on that sunny August day, and the sound just stopped dead, as if it had been bitten off.
The kids kept skateboarding between the cul-de-sacs that bookended either end of our T-shaped street back near the woods. None of us noticed that the electricity was off until about forty-five minutes later when five of us got tired of skateboarding and and went over to Evan’s house to play Warcraft on his Xbox. It didn’t work at all, no matter how many times we unplugged it and tried to reboot it. Marisa’s iPad worked, but she couldn’t get online, so we ended up fighting, and Evan hit my sister because she was being annoying again, so I punched him in the nose. Evan’s nose bled all over the place, and then we had to go home.
The power was the same at my house: no plugs worked, no lights, no Internet, even no texts or phones worked. We had no connection to the outside world.
My Dad came home early from his work across town. He pulled a cold Coors out of the fridge and slammed the door closed fast.
“Gotta keep things cold as long as we can,” he said. “Power is totally out – whole damn city is offline.”
He took a long gulp of Coors and wiped the foam off his lip with the back of his hand. Then he touched his lip a second time, and a third, wiping at it even after it was clean. He was nervous.
My Mom was gone on a business trip and when she was gone sometimes he got anxious and uncertain. With two kids on his hands – and my sister with all her issues – my Dad got overwhelmed sometimes. He tried to cover his uncertainty by laughing too hard and being crazy with us, and then later he’d over-compensate by being too many after he drank. Sometimes he had too many beers when Mom was gone.
I watched him gulp at the Coors, and narrowed my eyes, hoping this wasn’t the beginning of one of those nights.
My Dad stopped drinking for a long moment and stared back at me. “This is serious,” he said. “The stoplights were out on my way home. No phones are working at all – anywhere. No television signals. No radio.”
He ticked these off on his fingers, one by one. He sighed, a nervous edge to it. “Might be the big one, kiddo.” He ruffled my hair, even though I was too old for that now. But with that gesture, I suddenly felt years younger and so unprepared for this. It occurred to me that this might be the moment we’d been headed towards for the last few months. The news had been bad for a long time; my Mom started stock-piling food back in December.
Just in the last week, the news had been getting worse and worse. Every night we watched it religiously, because only the news anchors seemed to be able to make sense of what was happening, and even they weren’t making much sense anymore. The night before had been the worst yet: warnings of impending storms, possible pandemic in the city, riots, martial law to be imposed. Video shots of terrible violence, and burning in the distance. Some sort of catastrophe was upon us, said the news. And then the news was gone.
“I guess we’ll never know what bad things happened on the news tonight,” said my father with a sad smile. “You know what?” he gave me his trying-to-be-crazy smile. “We’ll make hot dogs – outside!”
We had a charcoal grill half-buried under old tennis rackets in the shed. My father found the bag and the lighter fluid and lit it up. Soon, the hot dogs were smoking on the grill and my sister and I set the table on the patio.
That evening, it seemed like almost everyone in our neighborhood did the same thing. The people in this neighborhood seemed to make do with any hardship – from leaky roofs to broken storm drains to crying babies and abusive boyfriends – with the same stolid sense of perseverance. From the retired ones like the Minor couple with their 60s clothing and motorcycles to the young family down the street – the Pattersons – none of them took things too seriously, but they knew how to get along: they who chased me out of their yards with good humor and helped each other with the kindling and the winter de-icing. Tonight was no different than any other night for them: a minor inconvenience, they’d have to eat on the patio, but they’d just keep moving along.
I took my skateboard down the street to see who was outside. The Pattersons had chicken on their grill, and the baby in a special chair. The Nielsens were grilling vegetables from their huge garden, alongside a bunch of pork ribs. The Johnsons had steak, but they were eating it a little raw, which made me nauseous to watch. Even Evan and his family – next door to us – were eating outside.
I could smell fish over the fence, and I bet it was the last of the summer salmon. But I knew Evan hated fish and I pictured him sitting there hungry without any food at all, blood still draining down the back of his throat. But I felt strangely satisfied that I’d punched him on this night when he might go hungry. He deserved it.
Only the Renickers were not eating outside. Mr. Renicker owned the oldest, biggest house in the neighborhood. His house sat on a little hill at the end of the longest cul-de-sac. His big stone mansion had been here before the development went in with the fancy streetlamps and the sloped sidewalks, easy for skateboards and old people and children. The Renicker mansion had an actual working chimney and thick stone walls, instead the drywall and cheap two by fours that held up the rest of our quickly constructed mini-suburb. And the Renickers had a generator.
I could hear that generator thumping away at the rear of their house in the early evening. And inside, there was one light on, and the Renicker family sitting together in the near-darkness around their kitchen table. They were the only ones eating inside tonight while the rest of us were gathered in the twilight evening.
That night – after Evan and I made up from our fight – our two families sat together on the patio much later than usual. We played tag with flashlights in the dark on the back lawn and listened to the crickets in the woods. We were watching the sky go dark over the distant city. We were thirty miles from the downtown core, so the skyscrapers were only faint mountainous shapes.
I was watching my Dad, my back to the city, when the explosions happened. There was a huge glow that cast my shadow out against the house, and turned my father’s face red and then white with reflected white before the sound came booming over us, shaking the windows like a vast airplane passing overhead. Dad threw a hand over his eyes, and when I turned away from him, I could see the remaining buildings silhouetted by flame.
Now there were just skeletons of skyscrapers and rising radiant smoke.
Mr. Renicker walked down the block later that evening and talked it over with my Dad and Evan’s family.
“Transformers all blew, I guess,” said Mr. Renicker, as if he knew what he was talking about. His eyes showed he was lying though. Something worse had happened, and they all knew it.
There was nothing that worked after that. No Internet. No Facebook. No email. After a time, no TV signal, for those people who had generators, and no radio signal either from any of the stations.
My Dad had a small radio he’d saved from his Army days. He said it was a plugin shortwave radio that could tune into special stations. Since none of our plugs worked, and Renicker had the generator, he loaned it to the Renicker family, in exchange for them telling us about what they heard. The first news wasn’t good.
The pandemic the news had talked about was happening, Renicker said. Some dark precipitation, explained my Dad. Whoever it hit, they got sick and terrible things happen. He wouldn’t tell us what terrible things. But he and Mr. Renicker kept talking about it.
“They’ve all gone mad in the heart of the city,” said Mr. Renicker. “Not safe at all. It’s an insanity that could get us all in the end.”
When I overheard that sentence, I asked about it, and my Dad said he didn’t believe a word of what he’d heard. “Pure crazy talk from Old Renicker,” he said, laughing. “If anyone’s insane, it’s Renicker.”
But the next time I heard them talking, my Dad took it more seriously. My Mom hadn’t come home from her business trip, and Dad was getting worried.
“They’ve established martial law,” Renicker said this time. “No one in or out of the city. They’re sending the Army in to bring back order.”
My Dad said he believed that, and for a week he talked a lot about his time in the Army, and all the good work the Army would do. But then Renicker heard something on the shortwave radio and it stopped my father’s hopeful talk.
“The Army has fallen apart, apparently a bunch of the Army has gone crazy too. So we’re on our own.” Then my Dad said he didn’t want to hear any more news from the shortwave.
After that report from Renicker, all the neighbors got together one night to try to figure out what to do next. No one was going into the city to work now. No one had seen police cars or fire engines in nearly five weeks, and it was becoming increasingly clear we were on our own. The adults all gathered in the Renicker’s big living room. They tried to shoo the kids out back, but I kept sneaking into the room to listen to their discussion.
First, they talked about all the bad things that had happened. Only the week before, the Renickers’ daughter Shanna had driven to the college to check on her room-mate. But she’d never come back. And neither had anyone else who had left the neighborhood. So the adults decided that no one should leave. That part made sense to me, especially after Shanna disappeared without a trace.
The adults also decided that we could survive on our own in our little neighborhood, as long as we didn’t allow other people to come in from other neighborhoods.
“We’ll have to patrol for raccoon and deer, if we want to eat next winter,” said old Mr. Minor. “I’ve done it before, I can teach you. We’ve got 45 people to support, if we count the 14 families. The stores that the Renickers and Tom here – that was my Dad and Mom, who’d never come back – have been kind enough to put together over the past months will only keep us going for about six more months, if we ration it. But if we can grow or catch food, we can last a lot longer.”
So it was decided that everyone would plant food in the long backyard that the Nielsens owned – it was nearly one complete acre, bordered by woodland. We’d plant a huge garden.
The adults found an old plow in the Washington family front yard. It had been a front lawn ornament, but they turned it back to a real plow, and used a ride-on mower to drag it along, and plow up the whole Nielsen backyard. We planted corn, and tomatoes.
We started eating dinners together as a community, either in the Renicker backyard or in the Renicker large dining room. And because of the no-heat, and the no-electricity, we started all sleeping all together in Mr. Renicker’s basement, where it was the same temperature and we didn’t need central air conditioning to keep us cool or central heating to keep us warm.
To keep our neighborhood safe, the Dads got together and pulled all the extra cars – the largest ones , the Land Rovers and the Toyota Land Cruisers and the 1 Hummer we had – across the entrance to the cul-de-sac. We were shut in here. We’d be safe.
It would be our own little sanctuary.
Two weeks after the explosions on the horizon, there was a heavy storm cloud that crept over the whole city and over our neighborhood too. It was a dark thing, as if the center was rusting out of the sky. And then a strange black rain, the drops thick and viscious, streaking the ground.
My Dad pulled us away from it, wouldn’t let us touch it or lick it. Our dog licked it, and he started acting strange, laid down and coughed, but what came out was a little thin bloody drool. Then we had to stay away from the dog.
Despite our precautions, everyone got sick. But slowly, we all got better. It had some bad effects. Some people trembled and couldn’t hold things well afterwards, and we couldn’t eat some foods afterwards. There were stomach problems, and vision problems.
But as my Dad said, we had each other. We had survived the city’s fall, and the explosions, and now this strange sickness. But we had our neighborhood, and we had each other. We would survive.
The worst part was that after the black rain, some people went crazy and some people died.
The crazy was dangerous. Mr. Renicker stood outside his house one day, and when all the kids came outside in the sunshine, he pointed his gun at them, and started shouting “I’m a war vet, and I know what’s what, you bastards! You’re all dead animals. Keep away from me, you sons-of-bitches! Keep away!”
My Dad and the other Dads went over to talk to him. And that’s when he shot off his shotgun. It hit my Dad’s eye, but didn’t hurt the rest of him at all.
Then the Dads caught up to him. First, they said, they tried to talk to him. But he wouldn’t listen. The gun went off again after they went in the living room with him.
I didn’t follow them in there. But I think in the end, they had to take care of him. Because I didn’t see Mr. Renicker ever again.
Afterwards, we all had dinner together at the Renicker house. Mrs. Renicker was okay with it. She understood, and she didn’t hold it against anyone, she said. No one talked about what had happened to Mr. Renicker or how he went crazy. We just all hoped that it wouldn’t happen to any of us.
My Dad lost his eye from what Mr. Renicker did, but that was the only injury from what happened.
There was one more death, a week later. Mr. Hoong said his wife was not doing well after the rain. Then he said she’d died. He wanted to take care of her on his own, but all the Moms went over and helped him.
Afterwards, we had dinner together again. Those dinners together became the way of making meaning out of what happened, reinforcing our connection, telling each other we were not alone, that we could survive together – that we could make it.
Once those terrible deaths were past, it seemed like we all had to pull together to help each other even more. We stuck to our plan, and we made ourselves stronger and safer. We stayed together in Mr. Renicker’s basement – in the house that was built like a fortress – we ate meals together, we became a real community, not just a bunch of neighbors.
The kids my age got to be really good at trapping deer by circling them in the woods, and chasing them to the jump-off point where the woods gave way to a sheer drop off of about forty feet into Hannigan’s dry pond. We didn’t even have to waste ammunition on shooting the animals: we could flush the deer out by being quiet in the woods and waiting for them. Then we ran at them as fast as possible, and chased them into the dry pond, where they broke their legs or their necks. Or we chased them back to the Dads who killed them. Either way, we got dinner.
By spring though, the deer had gotten smarter about coming near our neighborhood. The vegetables weren’t enough anymore, and the garden had grown over with weeds. And now we had to forage farther to find live game.
Every now and then, we would send out a scavenging party, and they’d bring back fresh food for all of us to share. That didn’t happen very often though: no one liked to leave the neighborhood. It was too dangerous. So we continued to work our way deeper into the woods.
When I killed a deer on my own, it was a lucky run. It had been awhile since we had all had enough to eat, and some of us in the neighborhood were getting weak. I spotted a deer hiding in brush on the other side of the ravine, and I began to run towards it, hand in hand with my sister. On the way there, my sister fell down, and her ear got a scratch, but there was no blood. So she got back up and helped me chase the deer again.
I got close enough to the deer to run at it, and I could feel Evan running beside me – we were together, moving as fast as we could to get the deer down.
I felt something urgent and terrible rise in me: the need to support my community, to take care of us all. I ran at it hard. I chased it over the hill, and then as it came to the top, it saw the approach of the running men ahead. The deer turned in a panic, and fell down the hillside, one leg giving way on a log. I went to it, but it was already going. Evan helped me take care of it.
We watched it die and I tried to understand how I felt to see it die. I reached down and touched the blood and thought of my absent mother, my Dad with his lost eye, and my sister. I loved them all.
When I thought of them, it didn’t matter to me if that small deer died: that urgent thing in me told me it was more important to survive, to live on. Maybe I was growing up.
It was my first solo kill. They gave me credit for chasing it on my own, and it died at my feet. And then we ate together, in the Renicker’s dining room again. That was our last night together, as a community.
The next day dawned bright and sunny. But there were strange sounds in the air. It took me a long time to recognize that the sounds were big cars moving: it had been so long since I had heard the highway or trucks, that I had stopped knowing the sound.
By the time I got up, my Dad was already out of the house. I followed him and the rest of the grown-ups down the street. Everyone in the neighborhood was there, walking towards the barrier of the cars that we’d piled up there, to block off the T and our cul-de-sacs from outsiders.
On the other side of the barricade was a large group of men in Army uniforms. I kept walking towards them, even though they were pointing guns at us. I’d almost forgotten how dangerous a gun could be: and it was a surprise to remember what other people looked like, outside our neighborhood. They looked cleaner, and meaner somehow. It looked like every gun they had they were pointing our direction.
We’d almost given up on the guns. We’d found ways to trap deer without guns, and it had been awhile since a scavenging party had even taken guns out with them.
“Jesus Christ, even the kids!” said one of the men. He had a large nose and a beard, and he pointed directly at me and Evan.
“Leave us alone,” growled my Dad. He started to lift the gun he’d been using as a cane. It was hard for him to hold the gun steady, after his injury, but he did his best to lever it up to position on his shoulder.
“Look at you,” said the man with the beard. “You don’t even know what you are.”
“We’re just trying to get along here,” said Mr. Nielsen. “Just trying to make our way. Leave our neighborhood alone.”
“Yeah, make your way by eating us,” said another man. “Fuckin’ zombies – last two weeks, you sickos have broken in to take our children.”
“We aren’t zombies!” mumbled my sister, her bright blonde hair floating in the wind. She smiled at them winningly, but she hadn’t brushed her teeth in a long time, and I guess it didn’t look as nice as she’d intended.
“Fuck,” said one man after looking at her. He turned away and vomited on the ground.
“Look at ‘im – look at his eye!” said the first man. He pointed at my Dad. Ever since Mr. Renicker shot at him, there had been a big black hole and a gray gouge on his head. It had never bled, of course. “Injury like that, he shouldn’t even be walking around, and it hasn’t healed, just a hole there, took off half his skull. He for sure is messed up.”
“And look at that girl, her ear is just hanging by a thread off her head, and it’s just rotting there. Can you see that? It’s sick! And the rest of you too – ”
I stumbled a little closer to the men. I was short and they weren’t looking at me. Their weapons had dropped down to point at the ground as they talked to us. And Evan and I could reach them before they looked up. I moved very fast, as I had with the deer. I felt my jaw loosen with anticipation, that urgent need rising in me again.
I was hungry.
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- Nicholas Hallum’s newest stories can be found at NicholasHallum.com
- Would you like this story to continue? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org and I might just continue the story!
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OTHER WORKS BY THIS AUTHOR
Writing as Nicholas Hallum (dark fantasy, SF, horror)
The Cambridge Key (Novella: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on the eve of World War II)
The Janus War (Part I: Ignition – a science fiction time-travel novel)
Bitter Blood (Novel set in an alternate and very bloody Pacific Northwest)
Coming soon: Wilderness of Mirrors