|COVER ME by Douglas Kolacki|
I stand there on the sidewalk, just stand, and watch the two approach. They giggle—always, the giggle. Always the same starry-eyed giddiness.
Then the man wrinkles up his nose, notices me and stops short. His companion stops with a jerk, reined in by his hand, still locked in hers. My eyes are still good enough to see his knuckles turning white, along with his face. The girl, red hair swishing like a perfect woven curtain, glances at him, then follows his stare. She screams.
In five seconds, they’re out of sight.
I slouch, the glare of their afterimages in my eyes, and think about going back to my alley and staying there. No one ever seems to disturb me there; it’s always dark, a graveyard for old furniture including a broken, mildewed couch that I sleep on when I feel like sleeping. Once a small boy crept in, voices hissing dares from outside the alley. He walked in five or six steps, then hurried back out.
I walk on.
How I reached the theatre, I don’t know. I keep to the areas where rats show up. Ten blocks in one direction, the city seems to age and decay as I go, until the buildings are foul with graffiti and the sidewalk with grime. There’s a dumpster by a hotel, and it always seems to overflow. There are almost always rats there.
There’s a mall with a multiplex somewhere around here, but like most things I don’t recall exactly where it is. It could be miles, far beyond walking. Especially for me—my left foot doesn’t work more often than not, and I have to drag it along.
My memories are scattered fragments, images of my army uniform with its three stripes, I forget what that means, palm trees from I don’t know where, only not here for the trees are different. A male face that looks a hint like my own—I think. I had a brother at some point. An older, wise face I like to think was my father’s. My mother I don’t recall at all.
And I don’t remember the movies until I happen upon the theatre. And only because I was chasing a rat. I can still move pretty fast when I need to, even dragging my foot. Usually I sneak up on them while they’re busy nosing around dumpsters. I’ve been bitten, I’m sure, more times than I recall, but it never seems to hurt. Always a great mess of blood, more than you’d expect for a creature that small. I have to wash at the river afterwards—so glad this town has a river and that I can keep that knowledge in my mind. They taste... I can never remember the taste, but I do know I’ve eaten quite a few of them, so it can’t be that bad.
I only realize I’ve reached the theatre when I look up and there’s the poster, proud in its glass case, three feet from what used to be my nose.
There are two faces in the glass. One is behind it, printed larger than life on the paper...and the other haunts the glass itself. My reflection.
Somehow it doesn’t surprise me. I can discern sunken, oversized eyes, teeth bared like a skull’s. I just about am a skull; all the angles and edges off the jawbone, cheekbones and cranium, show plain. Little hair, just wisps here and there, not even male-pattern baldness but rather strands on the crown and on the left temple. The last remnant of a cowlick hangs limp off my brow, maybe five or six strands, and over my left eye. I’ve never even noticed it. Those exposed teeth are positively rotten; they’ve turned orange, and every one of them must have a cavity eating through it. I look like a rotted, hoodless Grim Reaper.
And the second face, the one on the poster... looks a lot like my reflection.
I wait, for I know it’ll take a minute or so to process this. I can’t recall ever receiving a bombshell like this, but, of course, that’s not saying a lot. I do know enough to shrink back in the shadows whenever I hear voices and footsteps.
One man asks, What’s that smell? as he goes by.
But little by little it registers. What I am—whatever I am—it’s known. And well enough known, that someone made this story about it.
That in turn triggers a whole set of memories. The movies. Tickets, popcorn, auditoriums darkening and projectors bright, stabbing through the darkness (let there be light) to ignite a screen to life and rain down... a story.
It’s not easy. First I have to grope my way to the river and wash, not only rat blood and the remains of crushed insects from my hands, but my whole body. My tattered old khaki pants and once-white, now yellow and torn shirt with most of the right sleeve missing, feet bare. I see everyone wearing shoes so I’m sure I used to wear them, too, but at some point they wore out completely and fell apart, or I lost them.
I remember what money is. It’s too important, too critical a part of life to fade from my memory. But no memory remains now of the many times I must have used it.
When the theatre lights go out and the silence falls that tells you it’s closed, I go to the box office window and lean into it until my nose—the cartilage and little else—presses the glass, and squint to read the white characters on the black chart.
I recognize them immediately; that’s a good sign.
Yes... these are times. Time used to figure a great deal in my life. These are when the story about me comes alive on a screen in an auditorium somewhere inside this building.
The poster shows two people also besides the me, a man and a woman, the man aiming a rifle, the woman not screaming—for some reason I’m expecting that—but staring off into the distance, eyes determined. I’m in the centre, between the two, and unlike them I’m glaring right out at you, a jumble of yellow teeth and bloodshot eyeballs well into decay.
After washing myself in the river, and my tattered clothes as well, in the dark, I fumble my soaked shirt and pants back on and plod back to my alley, and stand waiting to dry.
Now I know that to get in, you need to pay some sort of money amount. I either didn’t notice that when I got the times, or forgot it. Probably forgot it; the times keep slipping from my head as well. Once I’m sure I’m pretty well dry—I can still feel with my fingertips, but not many other places and not at all in my head—I go back to the theatre after it’s quiet and deserted, and look again.
I don’t know how to “sneak”—that word returns to mind—sneak into anyplace. And I guess I really couldn’t; my smell alone would give me away. But surely they would let in anyone who pays.
A blanket someone left out on the sidewalk, grey and frayed at the edges, encourages me. I bring it to my alley and then spend three nights searching about, walking and dragging my unresponsive foot around the city, until I find a ballcap. One sits on a park bench, new enough to display in a shop window; someone must have left it by accident. I shouldn’t take it, I guess, but do it anyway. It’s black with the letters SD stitched in white on the front. Who knows what they stand for.
Blanket wrapped around me, ballcap jammed down over my eyes, I set up shop outside my alley. When day dawns—the sun doesn’t rise, it’s overcast—I wait for people to come out and pass by. Strange to see them close up like this. Over and over I mouth the words “spare change,” though speaking comes hard, and it sounds more like “speh cheh.” But holding out my hand is a bad idea, as I can see now that it’s daytime, the skin is worn through on the palm and I can see bones. More than one person crosses the street when they see me.
That night I’m in luck. Not far from my alley I see a man in a ballcap like mine, a dirty man, sitting on the sidewalk with a tin can before him and a sign written on a piece of cardboard in black letters. I shuffle up to him and try to read his sign. It’s tiring. I can make out the letter E in five places, two S’s together, and an A, and then I realize he’s not there anymore. The memory surfaces; he got up and ran when I came up. And left his sign. And his can.
I look in the can. There are coins in there, like I was hoping. Not too many, though. I’m sure I’ll need more.
Sign, can, blanket and ballcap with me, I park again outside my alley and this time sit with the blanket pulled up to my nose and the cap pulled down tighter. I can keep silent now and let the sign do the talking. I’m still not sure what it says, but it got the beggar the coins. It works. Many people pass by, healthy-looking people, some fat, others solid, some ragged more like me, some carrying briefcases, some chattering to themselves with fists pressed to their ears. Many, many people, one after another after another, pass by and pretend not to notice me. But finally someone, a woman, stoops and drops a coin into my can as she goes by. It makes a loud clink against the other coins. She walks on, but the sound rings in my head; a quickening I haven’t experienced, I’m not sure when, maybe never at all. My idea seems not so crazy now. It could actually happen.
More people follow. Person after person after person passing... and then a second clink. A third. I try to count the number of people going by, lose count after ten or so. And then someone astounds me by putting in something different, green and made of paper. Though completely different from the other moneys, it’s important, somehow. My memory insists it’s a good thing, very good, though I can’t remember just why.
I never forget, though, the face on the poster. My face. And my story playing on a screen inside the building. What is it, what? The thought quickens me—that feeling again—for the first time ever, I truly want something. I want to know what it is.
Many more people pass by for a long time. A car rolls by, slower than others, this one black and white. Two men inside eye me as they pass.
I wonder if those men will come back—they seemed very interested in me—but someone else shows up first. Two men, one tall, one fat enough to make up two people in himself, sour-smelling but not rotten. Their eyes are hard, and one has a grin on his face that reminds me of a skull. I never knew what a skull was, until he reminded me.
He bends over and looks in my can. “Well, well. What do we got here?” And he picks it up.
I throw off ballcap and blanket, thrust my face at his. The grin vanishes, he and his friend turn white and they drop my can and run.
Now the coins and the pieces of green paper have spilled out. Coins roll here and there on sidewalk before falling with soft jingles. Darkness is falling by now, and it’s almost as dark as when I normally come out of my alley. But a good thing, the sky has cleared enough for the moon to shine and though it takes a long time, I can gather and pick all five of the papers and, I’m sure, most of the coins.
There must be enough by now.
My right pocket has a hole in it, as I find when I drop in the first handful of coins, and I’m right back to gathering them up again. My left pocket fell out altogether at some time. There are only my two back pockets, so I put everything in those. I set out, dragging my foot.
The lights are still on at the theatre. And someone is sitting behind the window. I walk up, wrapped in my blanket. She’s a girl with long dark hair. She seems a bit different than most of those that passed me today, though I’m not sure how, but it’s in a good way. I’m reminded of that couple. She looks up as I approach, but her face doesn’t change. I fumble in my left back pocket, pull out the coins and paper and set it down by that little hole at the bottom of the glass, do the same with my right back pocket. And all at once I say, “One.” It’s a reflex.
She leans forward to speak, and I hear a tinny voice. “The 10:35 showing?”
I just nod. She takes the money and expertly sorts it out, counting it, and pushes one of the papers and some of the coins back under the window to me, along with a new piece of paper, this one white with tiny letters stamped on it.
I cup my hand and drag them toward me. Some of them fall off the edge and scatter at my feet making the soft jingles, but I don’t need them now. That new paper, that’s the one I need. Trying not to drag my foot, I shuffle inside.
The interior catches me by surprise with its brightness. There’s a long counter with all kinds of colourful things displayed behind glass, and pictures framed on the walls, large ones stretching nearly floor to ceiling. One of them is my picture, and it quickens me again to see it. There are people there, three or four of them, wearing the same kind of clothes as the window girl did; white shirts, red vests, tags. I feel their eyes on me. Fortunately the place I need is not hard to find, a doorway so wide it beckons you in, that needs two doors, both propped open. I hardly need to walk, but simply let it draw me through.
Now seats are all around me—empty seats. There are supposed to be people in them, but I’m glad there aren’t, for whatever reason. The towering screen in the front quickens me, for that is what will show me my story.
I find a seat near the front and sink into it.
Five minutes—or maybe an hour?—into the story. The screen lights glaringly, as if a window has opened into a fantasy Olympus we are privileged to receive a look into, but never step through. At first I register only the brightness, the life, washing over me like warm water. But now I sit stunned... or rather it seems like my ancient, withered nerves are struggling to remember that sensation.
I’m the villain!
I wasn’t at all sure what to expect. I knew only this was a story about me and so I had to see it. I’d never thought about anything else.
But in this story, the whole world is wrecked, and there are many like me, and we seem to be responsible for it. We shuffle, we wave our arms and we gnash our teeth and make growling, rasping noises.
And we’re... cannibals.
That’s another word I recall only now. I stare, my nerves still trying to muster up shock. On the screen we’re tearing people up and feeding on them, like a dog I once saw chewing up a dead cat, like a cat that once beat me to a mouse. There’s blood on their mouths and all over them.
I never thought of eating people. Even if I could get one to sit still long enough to eat them like a rat—and so much bigger, so much more to them, I couldn’t eat half before they’re all maggoty, and then I’d have to pick those things out of them as well as myself, and I wouldn’t want to do that. Eating people? Really?
But there’s something else the story claims about us.
It would explain things like the maggots, and my left foot that’s stopped working. Why I seem to know so little. It fits. I’ve always had the feeling, somewhere, that I should know a lot more than I do. Other people—the living people—the quick and agile ones, who don’t have to pick anything off their skin every time they wake up, seem to know a lot more than me. Everything seems to work for them.
I was one of them, once? And at some point, I...
Among my scattered bits of memory is a yard dotted with flat upright stones, some with writing etched on them, others old and crumbling with the writing wearing away. Is there a hole in the ground there, and a stone with my name on it, that I got out of somehow? I simply don’t recall.
Getting up, a loud scene from the story clanging in my ears, I limp down the aisle, dragging my foot. I’m thinking, this solves everything and I want to make it right. I’m grateful, somehow. I don’t have to deal with rats or the maggots or anything at all anymore. I’m not supposed to.
I’m supposed to sleep. To have been asleep.
And I see a door with red glowing letters spelling out EXIT above it, and I’m thinking to push through it and outside to begin what I hope is my last night in this world of the living, to find the yard of my memory, when my left foot drags from carpet to smooth floor to bare, uneven ground.
I haven’t reached the door yet. I know this for sure, for the EXIT is still a few steps ahead. I stop. The floor is gone in this part of the theatre, down by the screen where the towering images flash and gyrate. Farther back, the whir and the steady, rapid clicking of the machine beaming the long, focused stream of light animating the auditorium. But... no floor?
Only dirt, as far as I can tell the in the dark. I stoop, stoop, reach down, touch...
Soft dirt. Not packed hard, like I’d expected.
If the lights were on, I might be able to tell if they ripped up the floor for some reason, maybe to lay pipes or something underneath. This couldn’t have happened by accident. Yet even my brain, desiccated as it is, can see the coincidence. Or lack of it. I hear noises, make out movements to my right and left, I’m not alone here. One body lurches in front of the screen, the heroine’s chin and lips moving on his jacket. Someone bent over. He (or she) bends over further and claws at the dirt floor.
Did I think I was the only person like this? Or as the story calls it, a “zombie?” The word carries no familiarity.
I move in toward them. I feel no sense of newfound comradeship, or anything, only a common mission. Our lives were caught and suspended, right at the end, when they were over and finished and only one thing remained. For a long time we’ve existed, rotting but still breathing, that one act always remaining, within reach but never thought of by our deteriorating brains. Was this the very reason for the story? To bring us in?
And then the door I had been seeking, with the red EXIT above it, opens.
Someone else careens out, making a long kind of moan that sounds like it’s being forced through a mouthful of mud. I can make out only one arm, and when he passed under the red light I can see his head has cracked down the middle. He huffs out and lets the door clap shut behind him. If the idea was to lead us to complete our remaining task, it hasn’t worked on everyone.
The hunchback beside me seems to be sinking, digging and clawing and scattering earth everywhere. I get a cold spray in the face. I move to help him, pushing dirt into the shallow ditch he’s made, but someone pushes me from behind and I fall in beside him. He makes no sound, no move. He only lies and waits, dirt falling upon him, and I do the same, the soft moist dirt falling on my chest and legs and then face, dropped in by the handful, until at last I’m covered.