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    WARNING: Stories on this site may contain mature language and situations, and may be inappropriate for readers under the age of 18.

    HOME FOR THE HORROR DAYS by E. F. Schraeder
    October 31, 2011  Short stories   Tags:   

    Zenith had planned this day for weeks, ever since he heard about the Blood Rains: the Second Step coming out on Christmas eve. He told his family not to plan anything until after 3 p.m. that required his showing up because he was dead set on seeing it opening day. They complied, as parents often do with a favorite firstborn. In their eyes, Zenith was worth the inconvenient delay of a few hours, so they placated his sisters with a morning full of carols and brunch and planned a festive family dinner together: no problem.

    At 19, Zenith just finished his first semester of college, and he loved being away from home. Z’s dorms were officially closed from December 24 through January 2, so he’d spend that week at home, bored. He planned to head home only after watching his favorite film star cascading through an epic action adventure: he expected a bloody, plotless film stuffed with grisly effects and a muscled hero saving the day. Way better than watching his sisters unwrap a bunch of junk and pretending he thought about the presents he’d purchased last week before heaping them into a sack. He’d had about all the holiday spirit he could stand in wrapping the dumb presents.

    Right now, things were looking better. He was tooling around looking for a spot to park, nothing too far from the door since it was so damn cold. The whole parking lot was teaming with last minute shoppers. Fake holly draped around every window, beckoning people inside. The outdoor mall dripped with the spectacle of holidays past, someone’s idea of a quaint Christmas turned consumer nightmare. Roving carolers in Victorian era clothes sang at the main intersection, holding up battery operated candles, no less, and meanwhile people were pushing their way in and out of every store looking for the perfect bit of nonsense to add to their holiday expense account. What a crock Z shook his head, relieved that all he had to do was force through the crowd and enjoy some action.

    Shoving his way in line for tickets, Zenith relaxed as he inhaled the salty air of movie popcorn, and felt downright psyched about enjoying a slasher flick before kicking off all that crappy holiday nonsense at home with his family. They didn’t get how over it he was. To him, it was all a bunch of phony showing off about who spent the most money or who pretended to be thoughtful or got the best presents. His girlfriend chided him for the bah humbug attitude last week after he announced his desire to celebrate gift-free holidays, and he quickly retorted, “No one means any of that sentimental peace on earth shit. Wouldn’t there be more, I don’t know, peace, if any of it were true?” They didn’t talk about it again, but he did buy some stuff for his sisters, the little dizzy angels were too young to understand his more serious motivations. They’d just think he was cheap.

    The theater was more crowded than he expected, and he had to jam himself between two fat guys to find a seat. Wow. Who knew Van Osterof had so many die hard fans, he thought to himself. Once the previews kicked in he was ready to be entertained, so he texted his friends not to bug him: “Dudes- in a movie. Go deck your halls.” He snorted a laugh to himself, and settled into the sights and sounds of the dark room. The air smelled like popcorn and sugar, and the room was thick with the sound of chewing and crunching, crinkling bags, and an occasional snicker or whisper. It was warm, probably because it was so crowded, and soon the smells of the room included an unpleasant sort of sticky sweat smell, but it didn’t take long for the bombardment of images from the previews to swallow up any sense of irritation he harbored while sitting in the packed room.  The lights dimmed even further for the main attraction.

    While Zenith reached down into his bag to fetch a snack, the movie screen flashed a mesmerizing light between the previews and the opening. After the bright feverish blast of white hot light and a few odd clicking noises, a vibrating swirl of colors cascaded from the projector. Momentarily, it felt like a sort of mist transmitted through the air, and a ripple of wet coughing and grumbling swept through the crowd. As Zenith sat up, the reel for the main attraction finally began. Zenith sat in the center of the theater, his seat now compressed awkwardly between the two large men whose arms fully blocked his armrests on both sides.

    Zenith briefly considered pressing his elbows into one of them, jabbing just persistently enough to garner himself a little more space, but it wasn’t worth the effort. Distracted by the sheer delight in the impending sequel to Blood Rains, he put on his best holiday cheer and sacrificed his armrests for the greater good. He smiled to himself, content with his good natured attitude and settled in to his scrunched seat with his snacks. In addition to the popcorn he purchased, he brought in a few candy bars, a bag of toffee, a can of soda, and a soft pretzel from the vendor in the mall. That’s plenty he thought, as he glibly smiled at the chubby man to his right. Ten of these wouldn’t fill him, he thought, grabbing the pretzel.

    The film credits rolled into an opening action sequence, and the audience rumbled with delight. Soon the chomping got weirdly loud, it drowned out the revving engines in the first chase scene, much to Zenith’s surprise. Then he noticed some faint growling sounds coming from behind him.

    Was it in the movie or something in the room? He couldn’t tell. In the darkness of the theater he couldn’t quite source any of the increasingly weird gurgling sounds. He tried to focus more intently on the movie, but the slurping, fat mass of flesh to his left was getting seriously annoying. Mr. Slob went from chomping to snarfing, and Zenith was about ready to tell him to shut up when he noticed a candy cane was stuck to the side of some kid’s face in the row ahead of him. Gross he thought, squirming in his seat, trying to inch away from the gurgling soda monster at his left.

    To his right bulged another huge mess of a character who kept wiping his grease smothered, hands on his pants and snorting as he inhaled popcorn from a giant cardboard trough. Blegh, Z. recoiled again, only to see in the kid with the candy face now had two people chewing at the sticky bit of striped sugary candy. Chewing it right off his face.

    Shit, they didn’t stop at the candy- his cheek is bleeding. Zenith, mortified, jumped up and shouted, “Hey, leave him alone, you freaks!”

    A roar of groaning interrupted his outcry, and his isle-mates grabbed him by the shoulders and tugged him back down into his seat. They clasped him firmly, refusing to let him wiggle out of their tight clutches. Zenith couldn’t over power the two of them, couldn’t pry off their grimy fingers.

    You quiet” one of them yelled, the words garbled from a mouthful of chocolates, or something gooey Z hoped were chocolates as he watched it dribble from the goon’s lips and down his flabby chin. Zenith looked around the theater and couldn’t grasp the hideous magnitude of what he saw. Through the dark with the flickering light of the projected images and minimal footlights, he perceived only snippets and flashes.

    The boy with the bloody face was chewing something, crunching through what sounded like bone. Zenith shuddered. He glanced over his shoulder at the women behind him, and their sickly sweet perfume nearly gagged him as he turned around. The women behind him were shoving heaps of food in their mouths with both hands and incidentally unaware of having bitten off bits of their own fingers in the process. The bloody nubs of hands dripped into their popcorn buckets, but they expressed no pain as they stared up at the screen and continued to mindlessly devour the larger than life serving of Hollywood hunk in the shape of one very brawny Van Osterof. “MMM,” they groaned and cackled when Van’s shirt was ripped off on screen displaying his fiercely pronounced biceps and chest muscles.

    What the . . . Zenith twisted forward quickly and gave a shiver at the sight of the grotesque pair of them. All down the row, everywhere he could see in the filtered dim celluloid haze were hoards of people in a writhing frenzy of consumption. Their fiendish yowls, slurping, and endless chomping echoed through the theater, rendering Zenith both disgusted and terrified. Their skin faded as open wounds from misplaced bites oozed blood that smeared with sugary soda, forming a dark slime that soon pasted patches on the seats and clothes nearly everywhere Zenith looked.

    Zenith was surrounded. Some strange sickness had taken over the room, at least, he hoped it was limited to the room. Maybe the flash on the screen, the mist, he wondered. More importantly, he wondered how to escape their repulsive clutches. Every effort he made to stand up resulted in their disgusting, desperate grasps tugging him down into his seat. He couldn’t know for sure that he was the only conscious being remaining in the dark room, but it sure felt like it.

    Zenith patched together a plan as he sat as still as possible. From what he witnessed, he could rely on the distraction of the movie. His mind wandered to unthinkable thoughts: what if it’s not confined to this room? What if the entire movie theater or mall has been possessed by this sickening force? What would happen when the movie ends?

    All around him, movie goers-turned-zombies seemed to be engulfed in a frenetic surge of eating anything they grabbed. They groped forward and gnawed into each other’s heads, grabbing at chunks of hair that ripped out like cotton candy from a stick as they sat, eyes unwavering from the movie screen. Everywhere he looked he saw their graying faces mindlessly chewing on any bit of food or skin they could grasp. Their clawing hands murkily stretched out in the darkness of the theater to find any loose scraps to nab. The sound of nibbling surrounded him; like a room full of hungry rodents, the creatures feasting while their eyes remained fixed on the movie screen.

    Zenith couldn’t assume the unsettling spell that overtook the moviegoers was temporary. He had to plan a way out, something to free him from the entire region, get him on his way home. If the thing, whatever it was, had spread, at least his home town was sparsely populated, giving him better odds of survival than in the densely coagulated streets of the city. He had to get to his car, to the highway, and escape. He assumed the worst in order to plan his best chance for slipping out of this nightmare.

    Zenith couldn’t stand to look around. His breath quickened as he listened squeamishly to the gnashing teeth of the dead eyed monsters all around him. Their heavy strained grunting breath punctuated by the ravenous feasting noises made him gag. The seething congestion of the audience, its relentless chomping, filled him with repulsion.

    Their insatiable appetites and mindless devouring rendered Zenith startlingly precise in his strategizing. He watched them haphazardly ripping and chewing at seat backs, clawing at the hair and skin of those near them. Zenith drew himself up onto his seat tighter and tighter, folding up his legs and surrounding himself with his own arms as if to minimize the space he took, his volume in the room. If he could make himself small enough, perhaps he could remain unfettered by the greasy fingering, pawing hands that beset him.

    If they had independent thoughts, Zenith couldn’t figure out what they might be. From the looks of things, it was a room full of empty headed monsters unlike anything he’d seen, even in his favorite B movies. The crowd hinged on the action of the movie, growing agitated when the it slowed. That’s when they seemed to be most interested in each other’s flesh. When the action rose, Van Osterof leaping across the hood of a transit train or speeding through an alley way firing his machine gun through the window, the monster crowd gaped and grinned, grunting in satisfaction as gobs of gooey food dribbled from their open mouths. Zenith noticed the open wounds from the bite marks oozing a strange bubbly liquid, like some sort of fermented concoction from the combination of junk food, flesh, and whatever heinously dark force possessed the gathering and rendered them hapless to imbibe on anything their grasping, eager fingers could reach. Can’t let them touch me, he thought.

    The movie was the only thing holding their attention, and Zenith realized he would have to escape before the action stopped. The next big sequence, he thought, I’ll move through the mass and go through the rear exit while they’re mesmerized.

    Zenith knew he couldn’t rise fully, so he prepared himself for a low crouching run. He’d rely on the momentum and force he’d gain pushing against their knees to progress. It would have to suffice. If he kept his stature at seat level, he wouldn’t draw much attention pushing through them. He’d risk some contact, but hoped they wouldn’t be quick enough to grab him as he angled his way out of the row. He stuck his snacks onto the outsides of his coat, tossing a little food in their faces would surely keep them occupied long enough to push through the row.          It was as good a chance as any other he could imagine. If he could make it to the isle, it could be no more than twenty or thirty feet, he could make it to the exit. He eyed the exit, which remained fortunately unblocked, the writhing zombies stayed mostly leaning forward, slumping and slouching in their seats, drunk on entertainment.

    Finally the climax of the film erupted onscreen, Van Osterof leapt from a building and Zenith followed suit, plunging himself over the last two seats in the row to reach the isle, then diving quickly for the door. He thrust open the exit, allowing the hallway light to illuminate the grisly scene only for a moment. The masses bellowed, “No, no light! Off!”

    The door slammed closed behind Zenith, who was well on the way to his car, plummeting through a dispelling throng of shoppers. He paused to glance around him, uncertain if the messy bewildered flock of people hurrying through the mall were like him, conscious, or if they were merely a brainless horde of shopping drones. He couldn’t tell and he didn’t care. He sped through the heaving herds of people weaving in and out of stores, their bags jostling about them like the shackling chains of Jacob Marley himself. Zenith felt a sudden, sharp need to return to his family, to confirm their safety from the repulsive multitudes.    Zenith arrived at his car, hastily jostling the key into the ignition and speeding to the highway. He pictured his family’s simple plans around the piano and yearned for their off-key singing, their modest feast, the homemade gifts of his sisters. He didn’t take the time to try to discern anything about the miserable swarming crowds at the stores, now scarcely discernible in the distance. In the parking lot he only heard only a few rumbling engines and slamming car doors. Nothing worth investigating even if he had felt less afraid.

    Few cars were on the road, and he noticed several dozen groups of what he could only assume were more zombies collected in gatherings at the roadside near collapsed cars. They waved their arms out aimlessly, roaring as Zenith sped by them, stranding them to each other. If they were still conscious beings, they’d have to fend for themselves. Zenith couldn’t afford any more chance encounters.

    Finally after two hours of forgetable highway as desolate as he’d hoped, Zenith found himself arriving at the comforting sight of his unpeopled home town. Acadia boasted no more than 500 villagers, and its quiet life looked undisturbed thus far. The town general store, still whitewashed and well groomed was long closed for the holiday. A simple green wreath hung on the door. Its owners no doubt at home with their grandchildren. The Post Office, a cubicle brick building across from the gas station, and the community center looked just as he recalled. No one hovered on the street corner, no one could be spotted eating anything rancid or hiding behind corners. No one could be seen at all. Nothing was open, no one bustled about town, and Zenith sighed in relief. Normal he thought to himself.

    Festive colored lights hung lazily blinking in the dimming light of the day as he pulled up his parent’s driveway, gravel spitting out beneath his spinning tires. Zenith arrived at his parents home to find them exactly as he’d hoped: Dad shuffling around in his gray felt slippers, Mom on the couch with a cocoa, the fireplace warming the living room, and his sisters nestled at the piano bench thumping out familiar carols in the easiest chords possible.

    “Hey everyone! I’m home!” Zenith announced merrily, relieved by all the comforting sights and sounds of his family. The gang welcomed him heartily with enthusiastic hugs and hurried him inside. As Zenith unwound himself from his sisters’ wiggly hugs, he untangled the bag of gifts he had so haphazardly purchased and set it beside the tree. The girls ran outside to make snow angels, giggling and cavorting. Zenith watched them from the window. Home, he sighed.

    Zenith’s mother beckoned him to the couch, patting the space beside her. She clicked on the TV and hit the mute button while commercials ran.

    “Call back the girls. We were just going to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Such a sweet movie. Let’s grab some snacks from the kitchen,” she added, standing up and waving her arms inviting everyone to help. As they headed toward the kitchen, Zenith noticed from the corner of his eye a strange flash on the screen. That’s weird.

    Zenith clicked off the TV and said, “Hey, let’s just catch up instead, I’ve missed everyone so much.” Zenith didn’t mention the freaks at the mall. He didn’t even know if they would believe him. If more were coming it didn’t matter. They’d find out soon enough.

    12 Comments

    1. The story was really unsettling and horrifyingly claustrophobic when he was in the theater.
      (with shades of george romero’s veiled critic of cosumerism, bravo man!)
      So i thought that you saved the best for last;
      was expecting his family to eat him lolz!
      anyway thanks for the good writing!

      Comment by bong on October 31, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

    2. damn cant edit 🙁
      i meant critique not critic.

      Comment by bong on October 31, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

    3. Nice job…With the flash on the screen, reminded me of the worst Halloween movie made, Halloween III: Season of the Witch. I can still recall the jingle…”6 more days to Halloween, Halloween…Six more days to Halloween, Silver Shamrock.”

      Comment by EmpoftheEarth on October 31, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

    4. As I’m a “bah, humbug” type of guy I sympathised completely with Zenith and his attitude towards christmas consumerism. The descriptions of christmas shopping crowds was bang-on so I was already in the horrors long before any flash in the cinema. But that’s just me.

      I must agree with Bong, very claustrophobic and pretty horrible during the screening of the movie.

      This was very well written and kept my attention throughout. Also, I’m really glad that his family didn’t eat him in the end.

      Thank you for this story.

      Comment by Kevin F on October 31, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

    5. @emp

      was that the one where the halloween masks had a piece of rock from stonhenge in, that turned the kids into murderous monsters. God good that was a bad film.

      Comment by Pete Bevan on October 31, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

    6. The scene in the cinema was horrifying indeed. Graphic as well.

      Comment by Jiggy on October 31, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

    7. Yeah Pete it was that one.

      Comment by Terry Schultz on October 31, 2011 @ 8:36 pm

    8. oh man D: this makes me never want to go to the movies again! Did zenith just drive 2 hours to see the movie, or was the nearest mall two hours away? Hm, inquiring minds want to know. I loved it.

      Comment by Ashley on October 31, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

    9. @Pete

      Yep, that’s the one…When he said Flash on the screen, that’s the film that came to mind.

      Comment by EmpoftheEarth on October 31, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

    10. @Ashley – he was at college, not living at home. He went to his local multiplex before driving home to his family.

      Bravo good sir. very good claustrophobic story.

      Comment by Marc on November 1, 2011 @ 11:26 am

    11. I really liked how descriptive you were about the people in the theatre eating each other and theirselves…. Amazing writing

      Comment by Mac Corder on November 16, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    12. HICKORY HOCKS IN MY TIM TAM SOCKS SON…THAT THEM THERE BE ONE HECK OF A TALE YOU BEEN WRITING! EVEN MY BARN DOG “SGT. SHITFACE” WAS THRILLING HIMSELF AT THE EXCITEMENT ENVISIONED IN THIS EXTREME EUPHORIA OF EGOMANICAL EXPECTATIONS!!!

      Comment by RICKO THE SICKO on November 23, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

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