The dark cluttered hallway was so dark and cluttered you could barely walk in the damn thing. The various plastic chairs and metal desks, tall stacks of textbooks and notebooks, dingy old pillows and hammocks, all seemed like they were put where they were put in a conscious effort to make optimal use of the 8-foot-wide hallway.
Too much thought had gone into this. Rowan quickly modified his initial assessment of the place. Clearly this building had harbored survivors for more than a mere few weeks. Various materials around him evidenced a variety of long-practiced intellectual hobbies. Askant watercolor paintings littered the walls, depicting either people being eaten by cadavers, or generic nature scenes. Here and there dogeared notebooks lay open, their pages blue with handwriting.
It all amounted to this: Somehow the middle school had housed a large number of rational Normals for an extended period of time after the initial Turning. The clutter seemed a result of simple accumulation and the establishment of crude privacy partitions.
"What do you got there, Spacekid?" Rowan said when he saw the boy rifling through one of the notebooks. "Diary?"
"No. It's like the other ones. More fiction. Romance stuff with vampires again."
"They didn't have television or smartphones or anything like that," said Rehearsal, nodding his head in respect. "So they provided entertainment for each other. Good for them."
"There may be some clues hidden in the narratives," said Citro as she plucked the notebook rudely from Spacekid's hands. "Common themes. Might help us piece together what happened here."
"Later we'll have to start a book club," Rowan said, brandishing his trusty BBQ fork as insurance against unseen cadavers. "For now..." and he indicated with a jut of his chin that they should proceed down the hallway.
Makeshift sconces made from tin coffee cans-the creadled torches now unlit and cold-had been nailed directly into the metal locker doors at regular ten-foot intervals. Every few feet Rowan's helmet lights flared on the glossy cover of some teeny-bopper magazine, each featuring the cherubic face of some pre-teen heartthrob-Rowan thought they all looked the same, like they had played with dolls when they were younger.
So numerous did these magazines seem to be, Rowan decided they had probably come from a stockpile of student property confiscated over the years by the school staff back before the world had gone to pot.
The intrepid group of survivors who'd somehow managed to survive not only the Night of the Meandering Cadavers (which had, in fact, lasted approximately three weeks), but also the post-atomic Dawn of the People, would have probably been hungry for any diversion that could distract them from the horror of their dire predicament. These flashy, colorful magazines, each providing a glimpse of the world as it used to be, would have been a sight for sore eyes, certainly much more than the piles of old textbooks.
As the team inched forward through the cluttered corridor, large hand-painted letters on the wall to the right eased into the throw of Rowan's helmet lights. He kept moving until the entire phrase was illuminated and legible. "'Bieber 4 Eva.''" he read aloud.
"That's the guy on a lot of these magazines," said Spacekid, ecstatic at the opportunity to contribute something. He could barely get the words out fast enough. "He was a pop star. He was dismembered and eaten on live television during the Night of the Meandering Cadavers. Robonaut showed me the video. It's sick. You should see it. Anyway, I hated every single one of his songs. The only song of his I liked was..."
Citro cleared her throat. "Clearly these letters were painted here in reverence. That being so, I suppose it's natural for a group of survivors with no real hope of salvation to cling to a symbol of more innocent times." She pointed to the nearest magazine draped over a makeshift bed comprised of square blue couch pillows. "Brave Bieber volunteered for the job."
"Guys," said Sands, who'd spent much of the past few minutes trying in vain to work out a unified theory to explain everything the team had encountered thus far, "You're making it sound like the survivors postponed the Turn for months There's no way they-"
"Showers," said Bob Rehearsal, trailing immediately behind and to the right of Rowan.
"Don't get greedy, Bob," said Rowan with a grin. "Let's just be happy we have a roof over our head and a fence between us and the cadavers."
Rehearsal kept walking, his deadpan eyes fixed on the darkness ahead. "No, Allan. Showers. Regimented daily showers with clean water! Combined with the lead paneling we've already seen. That could explain how these survivors postponed the Turn for such a long time. It would have taken the edge off the pooling radiation. Bought them some time."
"That's RIGHT!" Sands squealed into his helmet's built-in microphone, the spike in volume causing Citro to shoot him a dirty look. Rowan and Rehearsal stopped their advance, each man amused by the boyish outburst. Rarely did Sands get so excited about anything. The team watched as he slapped his hand excitedly on the flat part of his blood-tinged hacksaw, intentionally making it dance in his hand.
"School this size" he continued, his eyes huge with marvel, "there'll be showers in the locker rooms. By now the water source is completely irradiated, unusable, but two years ago the water might have still been relatively clean."
"That would get some of it, sure," said Citro, a natural killjoy. "But it's their clothing that would catch most of the radiation. They'd have to discard and replace their clothing on a daily basis. Not like they could head on over to the Gap..."
Sands was not going let Citro's cynicism knock him down a peg. "All they would have had to do was shower with their clothes on. Or, better yet, this school might have an actual washing machine. That would flush out most of the bad stuff."
In approbation of Sands' logic, Rehearsal tapped his fireplace poker thrice on the tiled floor. "Indubitably! If the survivors were smart they could have optimized and rationed the available resources, kept the radiation at bay for quite a while. Stayed sane enough to develop a their bizarre fledgling culture centered around Justin Bieber and sci-fi werewolf romance fiction."
"Whatever our clever survivors once were," said Rowan as he moved his gaze to the darkness ahead of them, "They're not human anymore. Too much time has passed. Eventually the radiation would have claimed them, just as it'll claim us."
"Okay," said Rehearsal, raising on of his thick black eyebrows. "Sure. But where the heck are they?"
Rowan met Rehearsal's gaze and went silent with thought. "Dang. That's a really good question, Bob. Odds are we should have encountered at least one of them by now. Cadavers should have been attracted by our light and noise. At the very least we should have heard one by now stumbling through the junk."
Sands said, "And People aren't cunning enough to hide and ambush. They would have been on top of us the minute we'd started climbing through the window."
The astronauts shared a nonplussed look. No one seemed certain as to which direction to point his or her weapon. The mystery seemed to put everyone on edge.
Better the devil you know.
"Doesn't make any sense," said Rowan quietly into his microphone. "Regardless, the answer surely lies ahead of us. Let's find it." Grimacing with sheer masculine decisiveness, Rowan turned back to the direction in which they'd been traveling and, with loyal Rehearsal at his side, started wading through the clutter with renewed gusto. Citro hooked her arm around Spacekid and shifted him to the middle of the pack, while Sands hung back and took the rear, doing his best to walk in reverse and keep his eyes fixed on the gathering shadows behind the team's advancing orb of light.
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Note to regular readers: I will have to go back to posting new only installments on Saturdays for the time being, due to time constraints.
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