Part Five: The applicant’s name was Benny and his wife was Shelia. Gary tried very hard not to make friends. The monsters tended to kill people he liked or worse, cared about. He lived alone, ate alone, slept alone and didn’t get attached. Benny seemed to be okay, not terrified, and Shelia, damn, Shelia struck him as beautiful. There wasn’t a lot of beauty anymore. Most people were traumatized. Everyone was afraid all the time. No one was safe, no place was safe, and everyone knew it. There was an army tank and the crew had been killed by the smoke. A man had hid in it, coming out to steal food and then going back in as quietly as a ghost, but the monsters had seen him. One waited for him outside the tank. For an entire week it sat on its haunches and waited, day and night. The man had to come out, forced out by dehydration and filth. The monster chewed off both of the man’s feet and left him to die. No one dared help him.
Gary knew better. He knew better than to go downstairs and socialize. But Shelia had stuck in his mind. She had long black hair and deep dark blue eyes. Her skin was that creamy color that came with a mixed heritage and spoke of an incredible beauty. Gary knew better than to go downstairs at all, much less in hopes of seeing her again. But it had been weeks since he had spoken to another person socially. Since Deane, no one would get close to him again. It was obvious to everyone, even Gary that Deane was trying to survive, she would do anything at all, and her desperation was like a cologne she wore. Gary didn’t know what the monsters would think of him having a girlfriend but it didn’t take long to find out. Deane, gripped Gary’s arm one day as one of them passed, and she squeezed closer to him and whimpered. Gary shut his mind down, thought of numbers, of how to get more people into the city, and tried not to watch. The monster whipped around and lashed out at Deane with one leg, flinging her away from Gary’s side. He didn’t move at all. She ran, screaming his name, and then two more of them gave chase. They toyed with her, knocked her down, and finally, in a panic, she ran right into a building the monsters had demanded be burned. They liked fire for some reason. Deane screamed once then went silent. A monster went into the flames and dragged her out by one leg. Deane was still alive but she had been badly burned. They left her there for two days until she died and then one of them ate her. That was the last woman Gary had looked at, had touched, had put his hands on, and had felt her touch. But he didn’t want any of that right now. He just wanted to talk to a woman.
Gary hoped she would be there, alone at the bar, or in the cafeteria, and he could sit down and talk to a woman without the subject of feeding coming up, or one of the monsters coming in. How long had it been since a woman had looked at him without seeing him as the monsters’ pet human, a man who held life and death over everyone else? How would Shelia look at him? Those eyes, Gary was mesmerized by those blue eyes, and he knew this was trouble.
The lobby was very still and the few people there were all sitting in silence. One of them was near. People knew better than to run, they knew better than to hide or even leave the room when one of them came in. Gary went to the bar and the bartender said simply, “It went upstairs about a minute ago” and served Gary a beer. No one spoke or moved and Gary didn’t turn around when the elevator doors opened with a cheerful ding. They liked riding in the elevators. They liked grabbing people when the door opened or just lunging with their mouths open, just to feed on the fear, just to feed the fear.
“Gary?” It was Shelia.
“Yeah?” Gary tried not to stare. There she was, a foot and a half from him. He had never seen a more beautiful woman in his life. She was wearing a tee shirt and a pair of shorts. Eighteen inches away from him was the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen. “Yeah?” he repeated and he realized how weird he sounded.
“There’s, uh, blood on the floor in our room, Benny is trying to get it cleaned up, but, you know, you think you could get us another room, maybe?”
“Uh, sure, yeah, I mean, yes” Gary hated sounding like he was a teenager with a crush on a girl. But he was afraid he did. He knew he did. She had to know. Shelia was grinning at him. Gary reddened. “Come on, let’s see what’s open.”
They went over to the front desk that doubled as sort of an operations center. Kim, the Asian man who acted more than a little afraid of Gary quickly found a new room, “Try 209, please, there has been no killed there that I know of,” Kim told Gary. “I’ll send someone, to check.” Before Gary could protest Kim ran from the counter.
“Uh, so where are you and, uh…” Gary’s mind refused to work as long as Shelia was standing in front of him.
“So where did you two come from before…”
“We were in Oakland, and when it started we got caught stranded after our house burned. People were setting fires to everything, and I still don’t know why. We got herded into the stadium, and there must have been fifty thousand people in there. The monsters blocked all the exits and they turned off all the water. After three or four days people were jumping. Then they talked to some guys, human guys, and they told us to line up on the goal line. They lined one hundred people at a time and told them to run. Young, old, cripple, crazy, it didn’t matter, if you were there you got lined up. Then they told us to run. One hundred people ran like hell for the other side and the ten people who were last to cross the ten yard line were eaten. Well, the first ninety were pretty freaked out but the next one hundred were inspired. They turned the water back on at the goal line where we finished. We were two of the second one hundred. We finished close to the front but after the first five hundred ran we all noticed that people were cheating. They would knock other runners down and the monsters seemed to love it. They kept this up, day and night, night and day, until there were only forty-five thousand of us. By then they were letting the keepers feed us and they brought us sleeping bags. But they still ran us, one hundred at a time, and pretty soon we were lined up again. We kept away from the pack, let those who were fastest go on ahead and tried to stay away from anyone who looked like they couldn’t make it. As a team, we did better than average and that was all we needed to do. We ran five times. After the fifth time they started taking the slowest twenty, and they started hunting those of us who helped each other. If you pushed someone or tripped another runner one of them would come after you. It didn’t matter if they knocked a dozen down to get to you they knew how did what out there in that hundred yard dash. We ran five more times and each time it was worse, much worse, than the last. The generators failed one night in the middle of a run and we made a dash for the exits. All we could hear was screaming. We think they shut down the lights so they could kill as many people as they could. I think they got bored with us.” Shelia finally stopped speaking and Gary discovered he had stopped breathing. “Those keepers, those people who fed us to them, I hope it was slow for them.” Shelia said bitterly. “I’m sorry, I’ve never, spoken about this before.” And she put her hand on Gary’s arm.
Kim returned and told them that 209 was ready. “There you go, 209,” Gary said and he fought against the urge to walk her to the room. He watched as Shelia walked towards the elevator. Her hips had a slow, natural roll, that Gary hadn’t seen, hadn’t looked for in a while. Please, please, please, don’t let there be one in there, Gary prayed. The doors opened and Shelia turned and waved, and lived.