SPIDER, CYPRESS, AND A SIREN: CHAPTER ONE

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Submitted Date 08/21/2019
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It was his dirty, chewed fingernails that caught her eye in the first place. She wondered to herself how a person could be willing to put their fingertips in their mouth in the first place, to chew the dirtiest part of their body off, particularly when they were actually visibly dirty. The germs under your fingernails, she knew, held unimaginable horrors. It's not that she was a germophobe--far from it--but she just felt that if the statistics were even close to correct, then any person could have the feces of several different people on and under their nails at any given time. She shuddered.

She didn't realize she had wandered off into the recesses of her mind until the man cleared his throat. He simultaneously motioned for the bartender to pour him another double whiskey. One darkened finger, two light taps on the edge of his glass.

"Sure thing, hun," the bartender sang, "you know it's not even quitting time for most people. You're on your third double, not that I'm counting."

The bartender was a young, dark-skinned girl whose parents owned the place. She had all the men wrapped around her fingers, and if Siren was honest with herself, she sort of had a crush on her, too. She had ass-length dreadlocks that ranged in color from a copper-tan to white-blonde which sported beads here, feathers there. She was absolutely the kind of girl who you'd picture on the cover of Inked Magazine. She had tattoos of ocean scenes on her left arm from shoulder to wrist, with the main centerpiece being a brilliant-colored octopus. Her name was Max, and whenever Siren looked into her green-brown eyes she felt a shudder inside that made her shrink within herself. She was more than a little intimidated by her looks and charisma, though Max was as kind as could be.

The man turned to Siren and it was only then that she realized he was actually kind of attractive in that rugged, bearded kind of way. "Name's Crew. You," he said. Surprisingly, Siren noticed that his teeth hadn't been discolored by the chewing of his filthy nails. He actually had a beautiful set of straight, white teeth. "I'm Siren. Drowning a shitty day."

"Aren't we all, all the time," he chuckled. Max brought the bulky stranger his double and tilted her head toward Siren, smiling, and said, "Siren, baby, how's your beer?"

She hadn't planned on staying too long but decided to have at least one more. There was something about this man sitting next to her at the bar that had her intrigued. "Sure. I'll have another."

"It's on me," Crew chimed in, and he pulled out a weathered-looking wallet from his back pocket, drew a wrinkled twenty on the bar, and turned back to Siren. "So," he said, starting the conversation for her--she had never been great at small talk. In fact, she was so horribly awkward at it that engaging in such an enterprise often left her second-guessing and replaying conversations in her head for hours after, sometimes even days. "I'm pretty sure I've never seen you here before, but I swing through town at least once a week. You from around here?"

He had the sort of voice that she was sure could chop down a tree if he whispered to it, gruff, low, but careful. "I am. I have been here my whole life, I just don't get out much." Her beer arrived in front of her just in time for Siren to notice that the look on Max's face had turned to something strange. It was like her features had become alien to her face and she was an entirely different person, no longer attractive, but...she couldn't put her finger on what exactly it was. Siren watched as her green-brown eyes turned dark, her pupils dilating.

Without knowing quite how it happened, Siren was pulled off of her stool, across the bar, and crashed onto the floor on the other side. She landed hard on her hip and let out a gasp, "What the fuck," she managed to slip the words out over the tremendous beating of her heart. She realized that Crew was standing over her and Max had grabbed the phone at the far end of the bar.

"'What the fuck' is right," Crew said, and grabbed a bottle of Montego Bay from somewhere behind him."

"What's going on," Siren said, and then she heard a loud screech and crash from outside. Max slammed the phone back on the receiver and came back over to where she and Crew were crouched behind the bar. Just then, the doors slammed open and Siren could hear what sounded like a herd of rapid-paced footsteps before the door slammed shut.

"They're everywhere! There's one over there, Jim! Candy, Scott, barricade the doors, I'll slam this freak of nature," and there was a sickening crack-thud-splatter sound, repeated by another, another, and another before it stopped and was followed by heavy, intense breathing.

Siren decided she was done being forced below the counter and grabbed ahold of a shelf to hoist herself back to her feet. A cry left her lips, just a small one, when she saw the floor of the bar. Before she'd been thrown behind the bar, there were only a few of them in the place. Max, Crew, and herself at the bar, and a couple sitting at a table behind them. Now the woman sat slumped over in her chair, throat ripped out, tendons hanging and flesh laying in ragged flaps around her collarbone. Her eyes were open, her mouth was open, and her lips were spattered with thick, black-red blood.

The man lay on the tile floor, what was left of him. From the shoulders up, he looked like a smashed watermelon, albeit entangled with hair and bits of bone.

She turned and vomited onto the floor, right onto the floor. Crew had jumped the bar once again, luckily, or his shoes would have taken the brunt of it. When she regained her composure, careful to avert her eyes from the wreckage, she made eye contact with Max, who was crying, hand over her mouth. At that point, the newcomers sat at the barstools, having secured tables against the doors and boxes of beer up against the two front windows from top to bottom.

"Well slap my ass and call me Lucy, that was so close! I need a drink, lady. That was a rush!" It must have been Candy--she was the only woman who had walked in. She was with three men, one of whom barked at a flustered Siren, "Make it four tequila shots, beer backs. Well's fine."

"I-I," Max swooped in and saved Siren, who couldn't seem to find her voice, "I'll hook you guys up if you tell me what exactly is happening," in one quick movement she grabbed four shot glasses, followed by three more, whipped around and grabbed a bottle of tequila and started pouring it into the left four glasses while pouring whiskey in the right bunch. "I tried to call 9-1-1 as soon as I saw the dude jump her. He just jumped her. Tore her throat out. She didn't even have time to scream. Anyways, 9-1-1 didn't answer. I tried three times."

It seemed to Siren that her girl crush was so sketched out that she couldn't keep her train of thought, she kept babbling, speaking really fast, although she did a flawless job of pouring the shots and sliding them in front of each respective customer, including herself, although Siren had never seen Max drink--especially not behind the bar.

"It's a God damned apocalypse, sweetheart. When was the last time you went outside? People are literally exploding, blood pouring from every orifice, falling dead. Some of them look perfectly fine and just start chomping people. It's nuts," the woman, presumably Candy, had a strange accent she'd never heard before and was dressed in a pair of jeans with rips in them and a tight-fitting orange shirt which accentuated the roundness of her breasts. She was probably in her fifties and looked as though she'd lived a thousand lives, hard ones, although you could tell that under the wrinkles and leathered skin was a pretty girl who'd just aged out of her prime.

"Scott here, his dad just turned into a pile of nothin' right in front of him, and his ma just lost her shit, he said, and took off down the road, she jumped on a car, and, Scott, tell 'em what happened," he opened his mouth to speak, but she continued over him, "she jumped on a car, smashed through the windshield, and all he saw after that was her flailing feet, right Scott? Just flailing feet."

Scott nodded, bringing his eyebrows close together in a deep crease. He wasn't as old as Candy, probably half her age. Siren wondered what their relationship was. A series of sirens blasted past the bar outside and Crew rushed for the door, but two of the men grabbed his arms and held him back.

"Look, there is no help for us out there. It's every man for himself," said the man who'd smashed the throat-eater. Siren could tell because he was speckled with blood. He continued in an authoritative tone, "Here's what we need to do. Listen, it'll be dark in just a couple of hours, so we're not going to get anywhere very far today. I can promise those boxes against the windows won't keep those creeps out if they decide they're wanting a piece of this. We need to double-up the protection there. The doors should be fine, I'm hoping. We can hunker down here for the night. Do you have food in this joint?"

Max choked out, "Not really, I mean, there are bags of chips, some jerky, and I've got popcorn we can microwave,"

"Great," said the man, "Start popping it. There's no telling how long we'll have power once this nightmare picks up some steam. We'll save the food that doesn't need to be cooked for the road."

"Excuse me," said Crew, "we don't know who you are or why we should trust you. And I'm not quite done drowning my fuckin' sorrows. Beyond that, I haven't slept in a bar since I was twenty-three and I don't think I want to start again now. Why wouldn't a house be better? I live a couple blocks down the road."

"Yeah," Max chimed in, "all I know is you barged in my bar and demanded drinks you haven't paid for before you started bellowing more orders at us. How do we know you're not full of shit?" SIren was in a state of shock and hadn't quite recovered from her nausea.

"You're right. My bad. I'm Spider. This is my girlfriend, Candy," as he said this, Candy made kissy-lips at Max, "Scott over there flagged us down as we were headed toward the pharmacy. He told us his story and we brought him along with us. It worked well, since he had a backpack we could use to grab a pile of supplies at the drug store. Jim here,"

"I know Jim," Siren blurted out, "you own the grocery store and the pharmacy, don't you?" He nodded. He didn't embellish.

"Look, if you don't believe us, you're free to go on your way when we leave here, but just take a look out the window over there, you can peek between the boxes, and tell me you want to walk out into that shit-show."

The three of them, Max, Siren, and Crew looked at each other and then moved toward the large, double-paned window. Crew motioned for Max to go ahead of him and she had to climb on top of the table to get a peek. She looked for a long minute, mute, then hopped down with a look that for all the world seemed that she had just fallen into a trance. Crew went next, but instead of climbing on the little bit of table that wasn't stacked with boxes, he slid two of the stacks apart slightly to get a better look.

"Shit." Candy threw her head back and laughed out loud, proudly displaying a prominent gap in her two front teeth. "Shit," Crew repeated, and then stepped aside.

When Siren put her face to the space between the boxes, she could see that the road outside was nearly gridlocked--although this was typically a quieter-than-normal street. And oddly, the cars weren't moving. Beyond the cars, she saw people laying on the concrete, unmoving. A naked woman appeared to be praying on her knees, but on second glance it was clear she was absolutely eating someone. A man ran frantically as six people chased him in the opposite direction of the bar. A car was on fire two blocks down. A gunshot rang out. Two more, in fast succession. A helicopter flew in the distance. The world as she knew it had become a mirage, a daydream among a new, horrific reality. She couldn't scream.

She thought of her twin sister, Cypress, and wondered where she was at this moment. She moved away from the window and shifted her eyes from Crew to Max, to the group of newcomers. She had a shoulder bag draped across her front and without looking, she lifted the flap with one hand and put it inside. She felt her hairbrush, slid it out of the way, felt her pack of cigarettes, and finally reached her phone with her pinky finger. She turned her hand to grab ahold of it. Time had slowed down. She hadn't taken her eyes off of the people around her. Crew still stood at her side, slightly behind her, and although he was outside of her peripheral vision, she knew he was there, felt his presence there.

Max had moved back behind the bar and disappeared below the counter momentarily, only to reappear with two bottles of liquor in each hand, which she promptly slid in front of her patrons. One for Candy, next for Scott, one for Jim, and then Spider. As she disappeared again, Siren brought her phone back to her face, seeing for what felt like the first time the picture of her twin sister, smiling, her bright face only just more symmetrical than her own. Green eyes. Long, black lashes. It was a picture Siren had taken the previous winter. She'd taken Cypress and her daughter, Harlowe, to a ski hill. This was the picture that always showed up when Cypress called her. She realized she had six missed calls, all from Cypress.

Her phone lit up slightly brighter and vibrated in her hand, sending an electric pulse through her arm that floated her back to her body, made her conscious of her feet on the floor.

"Hello," she spoke tentatively, afraid to make a sound for fear that somehow it would solidify the reality she'd come face-to-face with. It was Cypress on the other end of the phone.

"Oh thank God," Cypress wept, "you're alive. Where are you?"

"Um, I'm at The Twisted Tavern. I'm alive."

"Siren, I don't know what's happening. I'm at your house. I left because Brandon started acting crazy, lunging at Harlowe, like he was rabid. I didn't take anything. Harlowe is with me, she's pretty shaken up. I locked your doors and we're in your attic right now, I'm afraid he will find us, what do I do?"

"I-I don't know. Stay put. You should be safe up there."

"Are you alone?"

"No, I'm not alone."

"Okay, I'll stay put. Are you coming home?"

"The streets are gridlocked, Cy. I can't get home before dark."

"Fuck."

"Yeah, it's okay. We'll make a plan and meet up tomorrow. Early. We've got to find somewhere safe."

"Don't leave me, Siren. Don't leave without us," it was the first time Siren had heard her sister so frantic. She was always the backbone between the two of them. So brave. So strong. Even when...

"I won't leave you. Let's save our batteries. Get off the phone, I left my charger on the kitchen counter. Before you leave, grab my backpack and my pistol out of my closet. Grab whatever food you can carry, we'll bring water. Ammo is in my nightstand. Grab that, too. We're going to be okay."

Everyone was watching Siren and she felt her eyes well up with tears. She knew she was lying. Nothing would ever be okay again, of that she was sure. She looked at Max, who nodded.

"I love you, Siren. I love you so fucking much. Don't forget that."

"Shut up, stupid. We're going to be okay. I'll see you in the morning." She ended the call, powered down her phone, walked to the bar and grabbed the shot of whiskey that sat waiting for her. She held it in the air and said, "Let's get started."

Everyone held up their bottles, their glasses, and then drank. When the shutters left them, they got right to work.

***

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