By Paul O’Neill
All I wanted was to see someone else’s face, to look another human in the eye, to know I wasn’t the only one left. I guess you don’t realise what true loneliness is until it’s too late.
Outside my living room window, the quiet sky burned a deep, angry orange. The whiskey distillery in the next town over had turned into a ball of flame. I could taste the burning malt of it seeping through the window frame.
I used to think of myself as a lone wolf, not needing anyone or anything – typical teenage chest-thumping. Mum used to say in her quiet but firm voice, Jude Guthrie, one of these days you’ll realise how much you need me and I hope it smacks you across the face like a wet fish. Well, she was right about that.
She left the house two, maybe three days ago. It was hard to tell. All the days blended into one big vortex of swirling nerves as I resisted the urge to bludgeon my head off the walls until I became numb. No radio, no internet, no more YouTube readings of Charles Bukowski or those compilations of cat videos I’d never admit to watching – just me and my soaring panic. I gasped at shadows and flinched like a nervous cat whenever I heard someone talking, only to realise it had been me.
Before the great shut down, there’d been reports of massive, alien-like blob things swallowing cities across the world. We’d all laughed it off, thinking it was some stunt like that War of the Worlds radio show that made everyone go nuts, thinking the world was going to end back in the 30s.
When the blob came to Balekerin I was in my room, sunshine prickling my forearm as it beamed through my bedroom window. School had finally ended for the summer, and my head was abuzz like a kid on Christmas Eve. Weeks of freedom lay ahead, hanging loose on street corners with my mates, raising hell, maybe we’d even sneak in some booze. My daydreams of blue skies and laughter burst away when Mum screamed into the house, slamming doors.
“Jude? Shut all the windows. Now!”
The torn note in her strangled yell killed the question inside me. I leapt up and slammed my window shut, then bolted through to the other rooms to make sure all the windows were closed upstairs. I opened my mouth to shout, to ask what the heck was going on, but my jawbone hung loose like it detached from muscle.
A rolling, oily blackness slimed its way over the window. The wooden frame of our house cracked under the immense weight of the lava-like sludge that slowly shut out the sun. My legs gave in and I slumped to my knees, my insides turning January cold. A smell like burning tar and soggy mushrooms floated through the walls as the thing engulfed the window, smothering the house, locking me in a darkness so deep I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or not.
It trapped us for six days. Mum and I huddled together, leaving all the lights on as the air grew stale and thin. There was nothing to do but go crazy with worry.
I was staring off into space, dreaming of the summer wind whipping through my tangle of brown hair, a sob baking inside me at the thought of never feeling free again. The blob unstuck itself from our house with an ear-rending noise like a million suckers ripping away all at once. The house cracked, settling into place as I rushed to the window, almost blinded by the beaming, glorious sun.
To my right, I saw the rows of houses that marked the start of our long street. Past our neighbours on the left, a black tide engulfed everything. It was massive, moving with slug-like muscles, pulsing itself onward.
Mum and I argued about whether to stay inside or go hunt for food, for help, for Dad. He was still out there somewhere. We had to find him, but we had no idea when or if the blob would be back, and what would happen to us if it sucked us into its black mass.
When I took the first step outside into clean air after six days inside, the oxygen whooshed straight to my brain like the whiskey Dad sometimes let me drink with him when he got home from the pub. I stifled a silly giggle and batted away a tear. The sun shone hard on my skin, urging me outside.
By the time we stepped through Mr. Kellerman’s open front door, the fuzziness wore off. Our old neighbour’s skeleton lay in the middle of his living room floor as if he’d fallen off the couch, a clawed hand stretched toward something no longer there. His bones had been stripped so clean they were shiny.
We took his food and I nabbed myself a few books, hoping the old guy wouldn’t mind. The collection of beat-up Michael Connelly books came in handy when the thing consumed our house again the next day like a nightmarish wave. It went on this way, covering our house and then moving off days later only to come slithering back, swallowing everything.
When we ventured outside those first few weeks, anyone we passed looked at us in horror, like I was the blob, ready to steal their life away. They’d jump to the other side of the road, refusing to look us in the eye. I wanted to shout at them to grow up, that we could help each other, that the government would be here soon to nuke the black thing into oblivion. I’d always thought that when the world ended, we’d all band together, but that wasn’t the case at all. Humans suck, big time.
The thick, orange sky was enough to make the base of my stomach quiver. I tiptoed closer to the window. It was one in the afternoon and the sun tried to burn through the orange haze while I went out of my mind, wondering where Mum had got to and whether or not to go after her.
Being inside all the time withered my soul – I was made for the outside. Growing up, Mum and Dad knew grounding me was the only thing that would get through. They could take my toys, but when they forced me to stay indoors, something would stir inside me, demanding to be set free. I was born to scrape my knees, to swing high, to feel the wind push and tug at me as I sped downhill.
I pressed my palm against the cold window. Were Mum and Dad laying somewhere like the countless, pristine skeletons I’d seen? Was anyone out there fighting this damned thing? Was I the only one left?
Remembering the last thing I’d said to Dad spiked me in the gut. I told him he could go to hell. I guess, in a way, he did. He’d walked out the door, a hurt look in his eyes. I watched him kick stones up the path, his head down as he rushed away. Soon after that, the blob came to swallow reality as we knew it.
He binned my bike – my beautiful Summer Bullet. I used to ride that thing until my legs couldn’t keep up with the pedals and then whoosh. With the wind pressing at my back, I’d close my eyes, a bullet shot from a barrel, tunnelling through the warm, summer air.
I didn’t ride it enough, he’d said. He looked hopeful when he said that, like a kid who’d just been told Santa wasn’t real, pleading for a grownup to take it all back. The lads at school teased me rotten about going ‘riding’ with my dad, so I let the Summer Bullet rot, and our relationship along with it, I guess.
What I wouldn’t give to stand on that red bike’s peddles, the bumpy pavement rumbling up the handlebars and my forearms, wind catching and whipping my hair as I flew down the street, the bright sun sizzling my back. All thoughts and cares blurred when I rode my Summer Bullet. I’d whip round corners, crunch over stone, slice through grass, the rubber tyres churning and zipping over hot concrete. Dad would be with me, hunched over his bike, spinning his long, dangly legs, the years thawing off his face.
My stomach roared at me, snapping me out of my happy place. It wasn’t just a subtle hint for food, either, but a long rumble like it growled at me. The last of our food – a tin of hot dogs – sat lonely on the kitchen counter. The orange light that buzzed through the window made it look like I stood in the centre of some ancient, sepia-toned photo. It made everything feel fake, like I was watching a film – a film about a boy, a blob, and the end of the world. Man, I was so close to losing it. I closed my eyes and my stomach screamed at me again.
No. I needed to wait on Mum. I couldn’t trust myself not to wolf down all the hot dogs once I got started. She had to come back soon, before the thing returned to blot out the world again.
Hot blood thundered around my ears as I opened the front door. A whoosh of muggy air flowed over my face. For a brief, childish second, I thought a ghost leapt at me. I stumbled back into the house, nearly falling on my butt. I exhaled a meek laugh and stepped outside, shaking my head. I needed to find Mum before the blob returned.
The baking heat made a sheen of sweat prickle my forehead before I reached the end of the path. The taste of cloying ozone held the promise of a thunderstorm as I stared up at the glowering orange sky.
I closed my eyes, recalling frantic neighbours shooing kids to school, straightening their ties before fleeing to work in the morning bustle. It was nice here – the kind of street you could belt up and down on your bike all day long and no one would give you any bother.
I slunk into Mrs. Peterson’s house, the remains of her front window twinkling on her lawn, courtesy of yours truly. The cold kitchen tiles welcomed me when I broke down, sobbing hard. What sort of dirty rat sneaks into a nice lady’s home and raids her cupboards?
I threw the bag of tinned food inside my house then walked down the silent street, trying a few doors, shouting my loudest but friendliest hellos. No one answered. How long could we survive like this? What happened when the food ran out?
I slumped down on someone’s doormat, back against a sun warmed door, resting my arms on my knees. I didn’t even know who lived in this house just a few doors up from ours. Crazy how you can live your life so close to someone and know nothing about them.
On the path, tiny black slugs crept, their oily skin glittering under the dull orange sky. It was as if the big blob left little parts of itself behind. My shoulders rattled against the door as a shudder rolled over me, and I inhaled a sharp lungful of the fire-dead air. A small slug reared up like it stood on hind legs, sniffing at me. Its shunting movements made cold ants swarm underneath my skin.
A wet, slopping noise like rising surf broke the silence. I leapt to my feet, bounding across the road to my house, looking over my shoulder. A mass of black tar sloshed its way around the corner and into my street. It slithered over garden walls, cars, fences, trees, until there was nothing but a black tide rolling toward me, consuming everything.
This close, greens and blues swirled off its surface like oil in a puddle. My legs turned to gum under me as it folded itself forward. Tips of houses vanished slowly under the blob’s dark depths. The air shifted my hair as a string of blackness shot past me. It slapped the pavement with a sucking noise that made my insides shudder, then the black mass hauled itself towards me like it gave chase.
I nearly made it to my house when the darkness swirled around me, splatting against the front door. It toyed with me, ready to slurp me into its flowing, glistening dark. I ran in the only direction I could – through my gate and into my back garden.
The gate swung open and without thinking, I sprinted to the shed, jangling at the padlock, a bubbling moan wailing up my throat as the tidal wave of nightmare blotted out the sun, turning my skin cold. The padlock clanged loose to the ground. I opened the door and leapt into darkness, rattling it closed behind me.
I gasped in ragged breaths, old books, paint and wood mingling inside the muggy air of the dark, spacious shed. The thing thumped against the door, making me fall backwards over a plastic bag full of hard, plastic junk.
Sweat tumbled down my temples as my scrambled nerves settled. Dad must’ve been in here before he left, forgetting to lock up. The wood above me groaned and splintered. My mind wobbled at the thought of that darkness engulfing the world above me, like I was a submarine lost at the bottom of the deep ocean.
I slid along the wall, tracing my fingers over the rough wood, reaching for a light switch like a man walking on the ledge of a tall building. I hit the switch, and two fluorescent tubes pinged to life, sharp light shooting along the length of the shed.
Dad came through for me again, big time. In the corner, in the largest shopping bag I’d ever seen, was a supply of tinned food. Fair enough, it was the food from the back of the cupboard that no one ever wants to eat, but beggars can’t be choosers, right? He must’ve emptied our cupboards to donate to the food bank. He was always doing stuff like that.
My surge of elation turned to mushy desperation as I hunted for something to open the tins with. Hunger howled at me, clawing me down as I sat with a heavy tin of beans and pork sausages in my hand. I managed to pry the tins open with a pair of pliers, slicing up my lips as I shoved the contents down my throat.
I’d no idea if Mum made it back, Dad vanished the day the blob showed up, and I couldn’t tell if it still engulfed the shed. It was just me, the tins, and the huge spiders that claimed the shed as their home.
My Summer Bullet was in the shed, all sleek and red and wonderful. Maybe Dad couldn’t bring himself to bin it after all. I wiped a tear from my cheek and lifted the back wheel off the floor and gave the wheel a spin. Its tic, tic, tic lifted me back to days spent peddling, weaving, popping wheelies, hopping over kerbs and zooming through my childhood. Ah, to feel that light again, like air, like freedom.
“Fly, Bullet, fly,” my croaky voice echoed off the walls as the wheel gave its final tic.
I closed my eyes. I was with Dad, flying down the street, my Summer Bullet wheeling under me, the uneven path rumbling up the handlebars and through my wrists as I channelled through the warm air. Dad was behind me on his bike, a smile stretched across his face. It was as if he turned back into a kid when we cycled together, and I could imagine that kid being my best friend.
The memory socked me in the gut as I traced my fingers along the brilliant red of my bike’s frame. Why couldn’t I have swallowed my damn pride? I let my ‘mates’ mock me into ruining something special. It was only sitting alone amongst the junk and the spiders in the shed that I realised Dad needed those bike rides as much as I did.
My supply of tinned goods wouldn’t last much longer, especially since I couldn’t stop eating once I begun. It was the only comfort I had in the four days I’d spent crammed in here amongst the junk. The sane part of my brain screamed at me to ration, but once I started one tin, I found myself ripping open another, and a wave of self-hate would take over.
I needed to find out if the thing still consumed our street. A sizzling fire zapped its way up my fingertips when I touched my Summer Bullet. It missed the wind, the speed, the jealous wonder on blurred faces.
“I can’t go on like this.”
My hands quivered as I leaned over, grabbing a handlebar in each hand. The rubber creaked in my palms as I pulled the bike off the wall and walked toward the door, the tic, tic of the spokes singing to me.
“What you say, Bullet?” I said. “Time to fly.”
I leaned my hand against the door, images of the black, swirling blob shooting into the shed, smothering me into its darkness, ending everything. I pressed the door gently with a finger and it flew open, swinging out, slamming against the side of the shed. A smile stretched up my cheeks as the sun warmed my skin. The light made my Summer Bullet pulse with red fire. The burning orange sky had been replaced by a wondrous, unbroken blue.
I threw my leg over my bike and onto the leather seat. Something melted inside me as I rode out onto the empty street, slowly at first. The blob was nowhere to be seen. Just me, a beautiful day and my Summer Bullet under me, ready to fly.
The chain clunked as I changed gears, then pushed down with all my might, my unused thigh muscles aching with pleasure. The wind shoved at my back, willing me forever onward.
A vision of my dad appeared, roaring with silent laughter as he cycled behind me, a boyish smile plastered on his face, willing me to go faster, faster. I obliged. I whisked round a corner, Dad’s image flickering in and out as I gave my tears to the cooling wind.
A mass of blackness engulfed the bottom of the long, winding road, eating up houses, the bright sun glittering off its oily surface like a distant, tar-filled sea.
My fingers hovered over the brake. The song of rubber mowing over hot concrete, the tunnel of blowing wind, and the whirring of pedals clutched at my soul.
I dropped my fingers from the brake, and pushed down hard on the pedals, zipping down the street, screaming at the sky until my throat cracked.
As I whizzed downhill, closer to the blob, it smelled like a campfire gone cold. I pushed until the pedals went loose and free under my feet.
I closed my eyes, holding on tight to the handlebars, holding on tight to my Summer Bullet.
About the author: Paul O’Neill is an award-winning horror writer from Fife, Scotland. He’s an Internal Communications professional who fights the demon of corporate-speak on a daily basis. His works have appeared in Eerie River Publishing’s It Calls From The Doors anthology, the NoSleep podcast, Scare Street’s Night Terrors series, the Horror Tree, and many other publications. His debut collection, The Nightmare Tree, is available now. You can find him sharing his love of short stories on twitter @PaulOn1984.
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