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Thursday, December 16, 2010

STAY DEAD: Gallery of Horrors (a free short story)

STAY DEAD: Gallery of Horrors

Henry always wanted to be a famous artist. He wanted his work in galleries around the world. He wanted to be the next Warhol, even though he’d never been to an art gallery and hadn’t the slightest idea on how to get his work into one. It was something he didn’t understand, and now that the world was coming down all around him, he doubted he ever would. As any good artist, he was full of doubt about his work.Was it worth someone’s time to look at it? Would anyone get it? Did it transcend? He could never really answer his own questions, but he felt good about his work and others found it interesting enough. He had hundreds of paintings piled up in his studio, many of which had never been seen by anyone other than himself and his muse—Hairball, a cat he rescued from the curb. Henry named him Hairball because her coat was a sporadic mix of orange, brown, white, and black and… well, she just looked like a hairball.

Lately he hadn’t the desire to create anything. All of his art materials sat untouched, collecting dust. His desk was covered in old eraser bits, ink spatters, and had a blank piece of paper sitting atop it. The blank paper sat there, mocking him. Henry couldn’t think of anything worthy of putting down on the page. He simply wanted to go to Bello’s and get a drink with his friends, but that was impossible now. He hoped at least some of them were alive and surviving too, but he doubted it. All he could do was look outside and make sure Hairball didn’t jump out any windows in search of birds to tear apart.

Henry still had power in his home (and from what he could tell the entire town did too), though he was reluctant to use it in a way where it could draw attention to his haven. He grew bored, uninspired, and lonely. Despite his love for his cat, he needed to see a living, breathing, person; one he could converse with. He started talking to Hairball a few days ago, and, more often than not, he would talk to himself. The last person he saw alive was his neighbor, two weeks ago, when she left for the airport—hours before all flights were grounded indefinitely. He hoped she made it too, but figured her pretty little corpse was out and about in search of flesh, like the rest of the dead things that he’d seen about town. Some he knew, some he didn’t.

Henry lived in Shark’s Key, a desolate little town full of nothing and no one. It was in the middle of nowhere. The nearest hospital was over an hour away, as was the police station. The closest mall was twice that. After nearly three weeks of mind-warping isolation Henry had to venture outside of his home. He didn’t want to, but for the sake of Hairball and himself he had to. His food supply had been gone days ago and so was the cat litter; resulting in odors that would rival that of the rotting dead that wandered about outside.

He crept out his back door and sprinted to the back of his neighbors’ home—the one who left weeks ago. She locked all the doors and windows but didn’t board any of them up like some of his other neighbors had done. Using a large rock from the yard he broke the window and entered the home.

Dust littered the home’s furnishings. Henry quickly looked through the first level of the home. Finding nothing amiss he rummaged through the kitchen. He found a six-pack of light beer and immediately opened a bottle and chugged it down. It was warm, but he didn’t care. He grabbed a few a things and ran back to his place where he then unloaded his findings. He repeated this a few more times before venturing to the next home. He broke in much the same way, using a rock to smash the back door window to gain entry. This home had much more dust and a very putrid odor scraping at the back of his throat. He didn’t get too far inside before he found the source of the stench. Turning to face him was an old woman he recognized as Mrs. Callahan. Her features were gaunt and her body skeletal. Her dead skin hung loosely from her bones, and her legs were swollen with pooled blood.

“Oh, shit,” Henry muttered, nearly falling backwards.

He’d seen the creatures from the comfort of his home, but never up close. Never like this. He didn’t even think of carrying a weapon in case of such a confrontation. Not knowing what else to do, he ran. He ran back home, locked the door, grabbed his fluffy multi-colored friend and sat by the window breathing heavily. He watched as the dead-but-somehow-still-moving Mrs. Callahan stumbled out of her home. She wandered aimlessly in the other direction. The back of her dress was filthy in stains, and streaks of shit ran down her legs.

On his second outing, four days later, Henry carried a golf club as a weapon, and a backpack so he could take longer trips without having to unload as often, which he found buried in the back of his bedroom closet. He tried to move swiftly, while still keeping quiet. He stared for a moment at the door to the next house. As he hesitantly opened the door he was hit with what was becoming a familiar smell. He forced himself forward, convincing himself he’d have to confront one of the dead things again eventually.

What he found inside disturbed him far more than the dead Mrs. Callahan. Sitting in the family room were the bodies of two small children and a woman, a mother and her children he assumed. They were shot repeatedly in the head; to the point where their faces were barely faces anymore. Their faces resembled piles of pulled pork emanating from their mouths. Maggots crawled in the crevices of the gore as flies buzzed overhead. He vomited and began to dry heave. He then heard a noise coming from just around the bend. He stepped toward it and his eyes landed on a pair of feet, almost touching his face. A big toe jutted out of a hole in the sock, swollen and grey. He followed the feet up, as his nose was assaulted with the smell of piss and shit, and found a man hanging by a noose from the stairway banister. The man spiraled in his little piece of a suspended hell he had created for himself. The hanging man began to moan louder as Henry stared on in disgust. Henry left in a hurry, though a tiny piece of his heart lay dead on the floor of a home he cared not to visit again.

Back at his home, Henry curled up alongside his furry friend and cried. Hairball nudged him with a wet nose then began licking her paws. Henry closed his eyes, and behind the flesh of his heavy lids were the dead people he’d seen the last few days, especially the last house, especially the kids. The smell refused to fade. His skin itched to be washed, but he knew no bar of soap could wash away the feeling. He could still see the man spiraling around by his noose, dead and bloated. The family he left behind served as faceless reminders of his deeds, they were bookmarks to a tragic story. The whole scene moved him in a way he wished his art could’ve moved people when they were still alive—and it was that thought that gave him the desire to push himself up off the floor.

He spent the next few days gathering up rope, chains, leashes, duct tape, and anything else he might be able to use in order to restrain one of the dead things. His excursions took him further and further away from home, and further away from sanity. The distance was also filled with many more macabre run-ins, what he now considered to be inspiration. Being close to the dead somehow made him feel more alive than he ever had. He was creating mental images for what was going to be his first solo art show ever—he just needed to find the right venue to display his vision. He still couldn’t think of a name for the show. He thought of a few, but discarded them as quickly as they came.

Nearly an hour away from his home on foot he found the venue for his show. It was the old Bisco factory. It had been abandoned years ago when the cookie company crumbled. The factory employed many of the people in town, and in a way, when the factory died, so did the town. Henry could still smell cookies when he approached it, though it had been several years since any cookies came out of there. Somehow, though, he could always smell them when he neared the factory. In the years that followed the place would become a popular hang out for teens to do the things their parents’ wouldn’t approve of them doing at home. Needless to say the place was in a state of disarray, with trash everywhere and half-assed tags thrown up on the walls, crushed beer cans and cigarette packs littered the grounds. Henry was disheartened by the lack of originality in the tags, though he thought some of the names were cool he found the techniques to be poor, often no better than a child trying to write his or her own name.

After he knew the factory would be a great place for his gallery show he returned home and furiously sketched. He came up with dozens of installations he thought he could pull off. He looked through some of his favorite art books for inspiration as well as his CD collection. He came across a few Cannibal Corpse albums that he hadn’t listened to in years and was blown away by the amazing artwork that he neglected to remember. The album covers were haunting and inspiring, especially the cover to Butchered at Birth, which seemed befitting of the new world Henry found himself in. Even the band’s name took on a new meaning for him. They knew, he thought out loud taking his comment half-serious. He sat, with terrible posture, and sketched out some similar scenes with undead butchers. He loved the ideas he was coming up with and they seemed to fit perfectly considering the abandoned factory’s previous tenants. When something he was sketching didn’t seem right he would flip through the covers and the booklets looking at the artwork and reading the lyrics. Such gruesome stuff, such demented lyrics, but all he had to do was look outside and know that life was stranger than fiction and in this case imitated art as well.

It took Henry a few days to prepare the old factory for his exhibits, and once he was finished with the preparation he began gathering up some of the dead people that roamed around town. The first one was tough. He had to fight back his fears and move diligently. The man was naked, dragging a pair of shredded shorts around his swollen ankle, and morbidly obese. He had puss filled sores across his body and his eyes were missing. He threw a chain-like leash around the man’s thick neck and he pulled it tight. He led him toward the truck, and using a pipe as a prod he shoved him into the bed of the truck (which was no easy task given the man’s size). Once he finally got him into the truck he wiped his sweaty brow and closed the gate. Giddy, he drove off as quickly as possible to the factory where he began work on his first exhibit.

Henry had the fat man strapped down to an old conveyor belt, bound by tape and chains. He meticulously cleaned the creature with bleach and a rag, which quickly became disgusting. He shook the dead skin and dirt out of the rag and dropped it in a bucket. One down, only about a hundred more to go.

Weeks later Henry assembled most of the installations. He also gathered almost enough of the dead things to make the exhibit everything he had wished it to be. He’d cleaned all the dead things in preparation for their parts in the show. They had to be near immaculate. He wanted them to look like macabre porcelain dolls. Clean gore. Preserved decay.

Henry now had over a hundred sketches of installation ideas and he managed to narrow the list to forty or so. He had taken Hairball to the factory a handful of times to see what she thought of the progress. She told Henry she loved what she’d seen so far and couldn’t wait till the show was ready to open. Henry kissed Hairball as she purred.

“I’m so happy you like it. I hope people show up,” Henry said.

Hairball purred again.

“I know, I know, we’ll have to promote it. We can make flyers. It’ll be fun. You’ll see.”

On the drive home, Henry took a different route than usual. He drove through the other side of town, where he was greeted by a group of shambling dead things. As he continued driving, he was greeted by many more. He weaved through them trying not to hit them for the sake of his truck. Eventually the shamblers disappeared in his rearview mirror. He drove around aimlessly through the housing developments making small talk with Hairball. He drove slow, staring into the windows of the desolate homes with overgrown lawns. The newspapers sat at the foot of many a driveway. The trees screamed for pruning, scratching at the siding, and grabbing at electrical wires. Porches sat empty, and lawn chairs were left for the ghosts. It was the first leisurely drive he’d taken since the dead started living again. He missed it. He missed the mundane town and its mundane folk. He wished they could see him now. See his art. Experience the spectacle.

Henry noted the gas gauge continuing to tick closer to the empty side. He wanted to drive around longer, maybe even drive out of town, at least for a fleeting moment, but he knew he couldn’t. Not yet.

Something moved fast near one of the homes on the side of the street. Henry stopped to see what it was, but couldn’t see anything. He was about to turn down the street and head toward home when something rustled behind a pair of overgrown bushes. He stopped the truck. Hairball meowed and Henry stepped out.

“Hello?” Henry called.

“Hello?” Henry called again. “I know you’re there. I won’t hurt you.”

Silence.

“Aww, come on… hello?” Henry’s voice pleaded. “I won’t bite, if that’s what you’re afraid of. I’m normal. Honest.”

“Why should I believe you?” A woman’s voice asked.

“Let me see you. Are you really real?” Henry asked.

The woman stood up from behind the bushes. She looked nervous, wild, and ready to bolt.

“Holy bread and butter,” he said.

“Well…”

“Well what?”

“Why should I believe that you wouldn’t hurt me…or bite?”

“Cause I won’t. You’re normal, like me… you’re not a zombie are you?”

“Do I look like a zombie?”

“No. Sorry, I didn’t mean to--“

“It’s okay. Look, they’re coming this way. I’ve got to go,” she said.

“Wait. We should stick together.”

“Sorry. I don’t trust you.”

“Hold up, jeez, let’s at least meet up and talk for a bit.”

“Tell me where you live, if I get bored maybe I’ll come find you.”

“603 Mulberry Street, not even ten minutes away.”

She took off running. Henry watched in awe as she sprinted away, “nice meeting you,” he whispered.

Henry pulled up to his home. Hairball meowed.

“I know. I still can’t believe it either--a real live girl.”

Hairball hissed and clawed at the window. Henry spun around to see one of the dead things clawing at the passenger side window. Henry quickly reached into the bed of his truck and pulled out a tire iron. He slowly made his way around to the creature, which in turn was moving toward him with outstretched arms eager to pull at his skin. Henry slammed the tire iron down into the middle of the dead man’s head. The dead man staggered backward, almost losing his footing.

“Come on man, just stop. Please? I really don’t want to put you down. I could use you in my show. You’d be perfect for this one--” Henry swung again.

The man’s head made a cracking noise. Dark red blood dripped from under his greasy hairline.

“Like I was saying; you’d be perfect for this one character I came up with. I call him the Scissor-back.”

Hairball continued hissing and Henry readied himself to strike the man again.

“Too bad I’m all out of restraints,” Henry said, caving in the man’s head.

The man didn’t get back up. Henry tossed the tire-iron back into the bed of the truck. Hairball jumped out of the cab and followed him back inside the home.

Henry finished the rest of the installations for the show. It had taken him several long days to do it, but he did it. He amazed himself with how well it came out. He’d never seen anything like it, never did anything like it, and hoped people would show up to see it. Whatever people were left in the neighborhood. He especially hoped the woman would show up. He hadn’t seen her since that day, and he’d even driven that way several times hoping to see her again but his efforts bore no fruit and only burned more gas.

Energized from finishing his work on the gallery installations he headed home to work on flyers for the event. He wanted to open it this weekend and run the exhibit till the world took its last staggering step into oblivion.

Knee deep in stacks of flyers in assorted color paper that he looted from the local print shop Henry scribbled out the same information by hand on each flyer. His hand cramped several times and the legibility of the flyers ranged from readable to some form of untranslatable hieroglyphics. Once he was nearly done he wished he’d chosen to use a copy machine while looting the print shop. His hand cramped something fierce and he grew bored of the repetition. Hairball stepped into one of Henry’s inkwells and ended up leaving little paw-prints. Henry wanted to scream, but after looking at the flyers he shook it off as a happy accident and continued to write. And write. And write.

After refueling his truck, Henry drove around town tacking the flyers to telephone poles, street signs, walls, and anything else he could find. Hairball sat curled up in the passengers seat as Henry zigzagged through the staggering dead whom held no fear for Henry or his truck. One of the dead things even left part of its face on the side of the truck. Henry tried his best to avoid hitting the dead thing, but the street was becoming thick with them. He was starting to draw too much attention and would have to return home or park down a side street till they dispersed.

“Get out of the road, you fucking idiots,” he yelled.

He began to grow angry and instead of avoiding the dead he began to target them, running down several of them before realizing what he was doing. There was a large woman in the middle of the street, naked and covered in bite marks. Dried blood ran down her body and her lower jaw was missing. A tongue dangled out of her mouth and rested atop the torn flesh of her former jaw. She staggered forward like a bull, and Henry couldn’t resist the urge to run down just one more. He jammed down on the pedal. The truck sped up and knocked the large woman to the ground, creating a loud wet smacking noise that sickened Henry and made the hairs on Hairball’s back stiffen. The truck bounced up and down as Henry drove over the woman’s body. He looked in the rearview mirror at the dead woman’s massive body as she began to pull herself up. Some of her intestines had spilled onto the road and shards of bone ripped through her chest and arms. Henry shuddered and took the first turn he could, speeding away from the growing swarm of dead townsfolk.

He finished posting his flyers and returned home. The truck was covered in gore and was starting to drive funny. The steering was off and the breaks felt loose. Henry began to regret running down the fat lady from earlier. It didn’t seem serious yet, but if the truck began to break down he wouldn’t be able to fix it. There were plenty of other vehicles he could steal, but Henry had grown fond of his truck. He considered the vehicle a sort of pet. He extended traits and gender to it. He knew his truck. He didn’t know any of the other vehicles in town and he didn’t want to get to know any of them either.

“I’ll take it easy from now on, I promise,” Henry spoke softly to the truck, gently padding the dashboard. “No more zombie road games, honest. I’ll take care of you.”

Hairball curled up next to Henry as he lay in bed staring at the dark ceiling. Tomorrow was the opening day for Henry’s Gallery of Horrors. He knew the name wasn’t terribly original. But it was fitting, and Henry always thought if something fit you wear it. It didn’t have to be fancy it just had to serve its purpose.

He nervously chattered to Hairball about the show, and eventually after he found the conversation to be a bit one-sided he began to drift off to sleep. He dreamt of nothing and slept like a log.

The big day was here, or rather night. Opening Night! Henry always read that the big gallery shows opened at night. So, the Gallery of Horrors had to open at night too. He paced around the showroom, nervous that no one had shown up yet, aside from a few staggering dead corpses outside. Which he momentarily considered letting in, but ultimately decided against it. Hours passed and still not a living thing came by. Henry was heartbroken. He walked among his exhibits. His favorite consisted of a scene at a dinner table of which he transported a small dining table with four chairs and fixed four zombies to the chairs. They were painted white, resembling grotesque mannequins. Henry glued silverware into their fists and nailed their arms to the table so they sat properly. On the table was a velvety red tablecloth with his mother’s fine china resting atop. Each gleaming white plate had some manner of gore sitting cleanly atop of it; brain, heart, lungs, testicles. He pulled up a folding chair and sat among them, taking part of the conversation that should’ve been going on if they could’ve talked.

When the door burst open Henry nearly fell over. Hairball leapt off his lap and ran behind the exhibit that had two men playing cards. Both men were glistening white; their lips were pulled back by fishhooks to expose their yellowed teeth and painted red gums. Their eyes were painted black with black paint dripping down their cheeks resembling tears.

“Hey! You made it,” Henry yelled excitedly once he recognized one of the faces that burst through the door.

“What the fuck is this?” The wild looking girl yelled, holding a rifle in her hands.

“My show! My Gallery of Horrors,” Henry replied.

“This is sick,” the girl continued.

“You haven’t even looked at it.”

“We can see from here it’s sick. These aren’t your playthings! They’re dead people for Christ’s sake!” Yelled a man from the group, as he disbelievingly scanned the room.

“You just don’t understand,” Henry mumbled, stepping down from the exhibit.

“No. It’s you who doesn’t understand. It’s people like you who caused this! Got no respect for the dead, boy,” another man from the group yelled.

“Whatever, man.”

The girl raised the rifle and pointed it at Henry.

“Whoa! What’re you doing?”

“Dad, should I take him down?”

“Shoot out his knees. Let the dead have their way with him.”

“No! Wait--“

The girl fired. Henry dropped clutching his leg. Her shot was off, about two inches above his knee. She stepped closer. Her eyes were like lightning and when she squeezed the trigger a second time thunder cracked and sent sharp shards of pain into his other leg, shattering his kneecap. Her aim was true. She looked at him with vehemence and then turned and stormed out.

“You can’t fucking leave me like this!” Henry yelled.

“No respect,” the older man repeated.

The older man, the girl’s father and the rest of their small group wedged the doors open. They sped away in a pair of trucks as the dead began to shamble into the old factory. They moved as quickly as the employees of yesteryear did on any given morning. Unready to start the day but compelled to do so regardless.

Hairball licked Henry’s shaking hand as he tried to crawl away, but every pull forward was agonizing. His legs throbbed in pain. Tears fell freely and when the screaming began Hairball scurried away, leaving his master to die alone. His furry friend skittered over Henry’s open sketchbook. The sketch eerily resembled Henry’s own fate.

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