art by Marcus Gannuscio, short story by Jad Ziade
The boys sat alone. “I’m hungry,” said Jimmy.
Samir plucked the upright bass between his legs. “Go eat.”
“Eat what?” Jimmy strummed a chord on the guitar. “Nice sunny day, hundreds of people outside smiling and having a good time, and these assholes book us to play an empty hall. What for?” He played the next three notes as if they accentuated the point he just made. Samir answered with a heavy G. “Which one?” said Jimmy. Samir played the rest of the riff and the two of them practiced a song they had prepared for the festival. Both stared blankly as they played; the sounds reverberated around the empty auditorium. Jimmy stopped. “Why’d they bring so many chairs? Do they know no one knows who we are?”
“I don’t know,” said Samir. His melody degenerated into a soft, repetitive plucking.
“Stop that,” said Jimmy. The older boy stopped. Jimmy cupped his chin in his hands. “I’m hungry.”
“Then eat.” Samir stood up and turned away. His back was sore and his arms hurt when he straightened them. The clock showed three hours had passed. He walked to the window where a soft din came from the crowd below and stretched his shoulders backward and forward. A man caught his eye. He wore a large, orange shirt and struggled with an ice cream cone. Oblivious of the crowd he pushed through he knocked over a small woman wearing a bright, striped blouse. She lay before him and cursed wildly, but Samir couldn’t hear what she said. The man didn’t respond. He simply pushed into the crowd back the way he had come. The woman pulled something out of her pocket as if to throw it, but the ice cream man was gone, and soon after she stood up and disappeared into the crowd. Samir turned back to Jimmy.
“Buy me a hot dog, please,” Jimmy said.
The older boy scowled. “Buy yourself one.”
“But you’re the one with a full-time job.”
Jimmy stamped his foot. “I live with my mom, bro.”
“So you’re saving money.”
“On ten hours a week.”
“Ten hours and no rent. Go buy yourself a hot dog.”
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll stick the hot dog so far up your ass—”
“Fuck off!” said Samir.
Jimmy threw Samir the finger and headed toward the door, kicking one of the chairs on the way. When he was gone, Samir turned back to the window. A man was jogging on the opposite side of the street, away from the crowd. He wore sunglasses and had headphones in his ears, and his hair was thick and black and long enough that it bounced on his shoulders. His shirt was sleeveless and cut at the midriff and his shoulders curved well into his arms.The small of his back had two tiny dimples of soft flesh. Suddenly it came to Samir that the jogger could not hear him. The thought made his cock grow half-hard. He pressed his hand against it.
Jimmy burst back through the double doors of the auditorium. “No hot dogs,” he said. Instead, he carried three small bags of chips—ranch, nacho cheese, and salt and vinegar. “Which one do you want?” he smiled triumphantly. Samir shrugged. Jimmy threw him the ranch-flavored chips and he threw them back immediately.
“You know I hate ranch.”
“Fine,” said Jimmy, still smiling. He gave him one of the other flavors and they sat down to eat, Jimmy noisy, Samir thoughtful, distant. “Ten hours at the bookshop and I buy you chips. Isn’t that nice?”
Samir gave him a venomous look. “I didn’t ask for charity.”
“You’re eating them now, aren’t you?” Jimmy laughed, waved his hand. “I’m just fucking with you, bro. I saw the sign out there—a buck a dog. No wonder they’re out.”
Samir nodded, then dropped the bag of chips into his bass case and wiped his fingers on his jeans. “Let’s wait one more hour, then go. Sounds good to you?”
“Fine by me,” said Jimmy. He tried a few chips from the remaining bag before tucking both away into his backpack, then chewing on his grime-coated fingers.
Samir walked again to the window. A tall shadow darkened the windowsill, then was gone. The glass hummed with the tiniest rattle. Samir looked up and the sky was clear and sunny. He shrugged, about to laugh. The glass rattled again. This time the whole windowsill shook with it. “That’s weird,” he said.
“What’s weird?” asked Jimmy. Samir turned to answer as the window shattered behind him. He shrieked. A louder shriek came from outside, splitting his ears and making his eyes roll back. He fell to his knees and gave another futile scream in retaliation. The air around the window shimmered with heat, then burst briefly into a fierce white glow. Samir’s back seared. He screamed terribly as his flesh blistered and cracked. Jimmy was at once beside him, pulling Samir’s shirt free from his body. He stamped the shirt until the fire was gone, then helped Samir to his feet. The hair on the back of Samir’s head was gone and the skin was bloody black. The boy shook with pain. The air became heavy and the windowsill caught on fire. Flames raced up to the enlarged piece of corporate photography that hung above it.
“What the fuck is happening?” yelled the young boy, but Samir couldn’t answer. He leaned on his friend and the two of them stumbled away. The floor shook at the same tempo as their footsteps. Horrible screams came from outside, interrupted by a single moment of silence. Samir thought he smelled charred meat. When they reached the doors of the auditorium he pushed them open while Jimmy helped him through.
“Smell that?” said the older boy. Jimmy shook his head. “Meat,” he said. “It’s meat.”
Jimmy guffawed, confused, almost crying. “I’m not hungry anymore, all right?”
The two struggled down the stairway as the building continued to shake around them. “The coffee shop’s across the street,” said Jimmy. “I can call an ambulance there.”
“No,” said Samir. “Your phone.”
“Right!” Jimmy pushed Samir against the wall and the boy cried in pain. “Sorry!” said Jimmy as he fished in his pockets, but when he pulled the phone out it was smoking and hissing. The glass screen cracked in his hand. He yelped and dropped the phone. “Fuck it!” he yelled. “Let’s just go!”
“My bass,” said the older boy, dazed.
Jimmy shook him. “Fuck the instruments, bro!”
They hustled down the remaining stairs and heard the din of a crowd below. The bright, wide foyer was almost empty, but the front double doors were jammed full of people as they pushed against each other to squeeze out and escape the building. Those at the front screamed, jostled, tried to push back against the people behind them. There were other screams, too—those from outside where people ran to and fro. Those screams were worse, almost inhuman. Samir pointed at the crowded doorway, delirious. “There’s our audience.” His brow furled. “Why didn’t they come see us play?”
“I don’t know!” said Jimmy. He dragged Samir to a chair and set him down on his side. Samir groaned. Jimmy gave him a sympathetic pat then darted away in search of something that might help. He found it inside an abandoned maintenance bag near the front desk—a three foot long hammer with a thick wooden shaft and a heavy steel head. Jimmy lifted it, screamed and charged the full-length window by the crowded doorway. Some in the crowd noticed him and stared. One of them waved her hands frantically as if to dissuade him. Another woman, trapped in the press of bodies, giggled.
The window came up at the boy quickly and he smashed the hammer right into the center of it. A jolt of pain ran down his arms. The glass didn’t shatter, but cracked. He lifted the hammer again. The giggling woman laughed hysterically, and having freed her hands, pushed them against the sides of her head, as if she wanted to crush her skull like a grapefruit. When she couldn’t do it she screamed and an eerie wail answered her from somewhere beyond. The coffee shop across the street exploded. Jimmy ducked, heard sirens in the distance. “Finally,” he said, straightening himself, and smashed the window again. This time the glass shattered and he turned away to shield his eyes.
His stomach grumbled as the smell of charred flesh wafted into the building. He almost vomited. Samir cried behind him. Jimmy ran back and hoisted his friend over his shoulder, and as the two of them limped toward the broken window, Jimmy’s eyes were already scouting a path away from the screams, the heat and the cooked meat.
The two emerged from the broken window, then headed up toward Marsh Street. Jimmy decided whatever horror was behind them would be less inclined to follow uphill. Several people had the same idea and were dashing past the two boys. A police car swerved from around the corner and smashed into a parked blue van. Its lights flashed. The officer in the driver’s seat was dead. His partner kicked the passenger door open, fell out and ran into the alley.
Jimmy heaved Samir higher up on his shoulder. He looked back and saw thick black smoke along the cityscape. Buildings had collapsed or were leaning against each other. Massive shadows moved between them, roaring and screaming. He didn’t understand what it all meant or how it happened. The auditorium crumbled, then, and a cloud of dust overtook them and made his eyes burn. Samir was out cold. Jimmy dragged him by the arms, suddenly tireless as wind blew the dust ahead, giving the top of the hill a hazy look, but it didn’t seem so far away.
Then a gigantic scaled foot smashed down next to them, shaking the world and throwing them off-balance. It lifted up and they fell into the crater-like footprint it left behind. Jimmy screamed. He let Samir go and pulled his knees up to his chin. The thunderous foot smashed down again somewhere ahead, and he wanted to look up, but held his head between his knees, screaming wildly.
It was then that Samir came to and grabbed his friend’s wrist. But Jimmy shook him away. “It’s over!” he yelled. “It’s over!” He looked up, as he knew he had to, and saw the thing that destroyed the auditorium. It was more terrible than he imagined, its face fury and its girth monstrous. He sobbed and shook his head, no longer wanting to see, and spoke gibberish as he sank down beside his friend and buried his eyes beneath Samir’s arm.
NEXT TIME: Death and the Maiden