Wear Chainmail to the Apocalypse
The following is an excerpt from my novel, Wear Chainmail to the Apocalypse (Book 1, Book 2, and Book 3). In this chapter, I explore a trope of the apocalyptic genre: The living are confined, while the infected roam free. How does our fearful narrator maintain his sanity? He discovers a few good books, of course.
My job consisted of clicking a wireless plastic mouse. I rested my hand on top, pressed down gently and then released. I moved the mouse around on the pad, stopped, then clicked again — a double click now, two clicks in rapid succession. It felt good to click the mouse. It felt like work. I moved the mouse around a bit more on the pad. After a few minutes of clicking, I placed my hands on the keyboard. I typed my thoughts:
For immediate release. There is no power. There hasn’t been any electricity for about two weeks. The computer isn’t on, because there is no power. I’m actually staring at an empty screen. My job doesn’t make much sense without the power. I’m typing nothing and clicking nothing. I like the cadence of the clicks. It feels like I’m doing something productive. Click. Click, click, click, click. I am Tom Honeywell. T.H. Typing on the keyboard. Click, click, click. I want to die, but I don’t want to be there when it happens. I want to die, but I keep typing nothing on nothing for no one at the end of everything. That’s good. I should write that down.
The screen was blank. The room was illuminated only by the fading sunlight from the window, cutting through the blinds across the hallway. The office was muggy, because there was no air conditioning. And no power. I sat at my cubicle and kept typing, because what else was I going to do? Go outside? Hell no.
I leaned over to the steno notepad on my desk and wrote a sentence that felt true. Typing it wouldn’t do anything. I had no job, since everyone was dead. But I did have an endless supply of pens and notepads. Maybe if someone else survived, they would appreciate a written record. However pathetic it may be. I returned to typing into the void to pass time.
Once I was done working at the dead computer, I spun around in my office chair. I leaned back as far as I can go, and rested my head on the back of the chair. I stared at the ceiling and slowly moved the chair in a circle, inching it along on my tiptoes. I did this until it was completely dark outside. I wasn’t tired, but I still had not acclimated to the dark, and I was afraid. I knew no one else was on this floor. I checked several times each day. The stairwell door was completely barricaded, and they couldn’t use the elevator. Neither could I. I wished I could watch TV, not for any particular show but as a device to pass time until I fell asleep.
I went to the office couch, which I had converted into my bed. I lit the candles on the coffee table. Two weeks ago, I moved all my co-workers’ framed portraits from their desks and relocated them here, pictures of other people’s boyfriends and girlfriends, spouses, parents, cousins, nieces and nephews. These photos faced me as I lay on my side. The light flickered on their faces. There was the photo of my manager’s daughter at her graduation. There was my account executive’s five-year-old nephew. There was a photo of somebody’s parents. There was the photo of Katie, a girl I liked, with her best friend at a bar and the photo of the Intern with her dog.
They kept me company.
“Hello, family and friends,” I paused for a response. They quietly waited for me to speak. “How was work? Anyone? I wrote a long suicide note and threw it away. I then wrote a short suicide note, threw that away. I checked the floor and the barricade again. I read another chapter of the new novel. It’s good. I attempted some push-ups and sit-ups. I typed on my computer like I always do. Work is work.”
Something about that phrase caused me to choke up. Work is work. I fought back some tears, and then gave in. I cried, which relaxed me, and sleep came.
The next morning, I invented some office games. I organized an obstacle course for my roller chair. I would time my circuit around the course on my watch, and then tried to beat my best time. Forty-five seconds was the standing record from my third attempt. On my fourth attempt, I tipped over the chair from pushing too hard. My head hit the industrial-strength carpeting, and I decided to retire as a roller chair racer, at least for the day.
I pretended the floor was lava. I could make it from the break room to my manager’s office without touching the ground. I was able to space out the chairs as a bridge. Victory.
I also constructed a fort with the boxes containing the letter size 20 lb. reams of paper (500 count). The fort had turrets and everything. I folded some paper knights and drew scowling faces on them. I used scotch tape to affix paper clip swords to their hands. Then I tried shooting them with rubber bands.
Then, I went to the broken window in my boss’s office. The windows weren’t designed to open, possibly to prevent a disgruntled copywriter from jumping to his death. But I broke the window because the office air was getting stale. It was hard to breath. I needed the outside air. From the broken window, it was easy to hear those on the outside. A small group of the infected people had camped in front of the office building, and had no interest in moving on. From the third floor, I could look down on them. And they could look up at me. For my next office game, I took our copier machine to the broken window. I balanced it on the ledge and waited. One of the creatures moved into position, a bearded fellow with half his face missing. I tipped the copier over, and it tumbled toward the bearded half-face. It caved in his skull, pulverizing him. He collapsed to the ground, a bloody mess mingled with the yellowy lard squished out of his crushed body. Rightfully lifeless. Next, I grabbed a trash can and threw it at another one, but missed. A few more came closer to the window, reaching upward toward me. I took my boss’s computer monitor and tossed it out the window. It hit one in the chest, ripping him down the middle. He was still mobile, but I did enough damage to cause him to wander away.
“You better run. You — ”
He turned back around. I reached for a chair and tossed it out the window, scoring a direct hit to his head. He fell down.
I continued to throw things out the window. For every one I took out, a few more would walk around the corner to see what the excitement was about. Minutes later, I had a mini-horde gathered below my broken window. I could stage dive if I wanted to. They would catch me. I was certain. And then, they would rip me to shreds. I wondered, how quick would it be? How much can be torn from you before you stop being “you” and cease to be anything? Is there a microsecond of consciousness, of awareness when you are ripped to pieces? When your head is detached from the body, and you can see the rest of your body — over yonder — being dissected by those people. My mind often wandered to such places. I would close my eyes and dwell on an unthinkable idea until it felt real, then I would shudder and try to pull myself back to the here and now.
A week earlier, from this same window, I saw a fat man jogging down the street. He wore a tank top — originally white but browned from days of sweat — boxer shorts and running shoes. No socks. He would jog ten feet, then stop and bend over, sucking in air, and then jog ten more feet. He looked up and saw me. I waved. He acknowledged me with a vacant nod, then jogged a few more steps. As he continued down the street, farther away from my building, I saw the infected people, dozens of them, trailing behind the fat man. The longer he paused to gain his breath, the more he would have to jog the next time, and each time the people inched closer. He could not get enough distance to be free of them. I called out trying to draw some away. What was a few more encircling my tower? Half of the ruffians looked around to me as I hey-hey-heyed like I was the most enthusiastic cheerleader of the end times. The distracted ones walked toward me. The rest continued after the fat man. I watched the fat man jog and stop, jog and stop until my view was blocked from the parking garage across the way. For some time afterward, I listened for the screams. There was nothing. I wished the jogger well. He wouldn’t survive. He couldn’t, but I wished him well.
I was done tossing objects out the window. I was hungry so I stopped with the games and checked on my stash of food.
There are worse places to be stranded than an office building. Three cheers for bottled water. This building was overstocked with bottled water, enough for a few years. Every former tenant had his or her own stock of bottled water. I was an ardent tap water drinker before all this, but the faucets offered nothing. The toilets still flushed. I couldn’t figure out why this was the case. Would I drink water from the toilet, if I were desperate? Who knew if it was potable? I could trust the bottled water.
The office building also provided snacks from a vending machine I demolished. Throughout the building, I found several kitchens and break rooms, which catered apples and bananas, granola bars, crackers, nuts, dry oatmeal, bagels, baby carrots, Pop Tarts, and beef jerky. It was enough.
I ventured out after my second day in the office to scavenge for water and food. I stockpiled all the individually-wrapped processed foods on a table near my couch bed. I also kept a backpack filled with rations. If I needed to make a quick exit, I could take the pack. I would be sustained for a while. The backpack also had steno notepads, pens, and my books.
The hardest part of my day was using the bathroom. I waited until it was unbearably uncomfortable before I went to the bathroom. I’m embarrassed to admit even though I had seen the infected en masse, even though I witnessed the end of civilization from the broken window of my boss’s office, I was still most afraid of the complete darkness in the bathroom. In the light, you saw the reality of the remaining people. They snarled and shuffled and swarmed. You would not want to get close to one. But they were avoidable as long as you could find good shelter. In the dark, my imagination took over. The people of my impish mind could ascend the stairs and phase through the barricade, drift into the bathroom in the pitch blackness. I could not escape them. The fear would overtake me. I would start to shake violently. Once I left the bathroom, I would lie on the couch, bring my knees up, try to stop crying — breathe in and out deeply and intentionally until the shaking stopped. It was silly. My rational self knew nothing was in the bathroom. By my reckless and disobedient thoughts did not care. My mind, my body was now trained to panic whenever I walked into the bathroom.
I could pee in the office sink. But with the plumbing not working, the smell was an issue especially without proper ventilation in the hot, humid room. I considered urinating from the broken window onto the people gathered below. I couldn’t do it. While I had no qualms with dropping an Epson printer on a person’s head, peeing on them was too denigrating to the memory of whoever they once were. Or maybe it was shy bladder syndrome.
Like every day, I retreated to the couch after going to the bathroom, having my usual panic attack, thinking about how lucky I was to be alive, to be alone, isolated, and semi-nourished with snack food. These tears were not the tears of surrender that led to sleep. Instead, these tears pulled at every muscle, a powerful convulsive cry, like I had strings attached to me and a puppeteer jangling me about.
I chanted my so-you-survived-the-apocalypse mantra.
“I am . . . so happy.” I’m alone. All my friends are dead. “I’m . . . so lucky.” My family is dead. I never got the chance to say goodbye. “I have my . . . life.” It’s the end of everything, and I’m still here. “I can’t wait to see . . . what tomorrow brings.”
I continued to mumble to myself. Once the shaking stopped, I reached for the only thing that truly soothed me in these moments, and returned me to a calmer state. Sandra Brown. Sandra Brown is a novelist, and I love her.
I never read her novels before the apocalypse. I always walked past those schmaltzy romance paperbacks in the grocery store checkout line near the tabloid magazines and candy bars. My god. I never knew what I was missing.
During one of my scavenging trips around the third floor, I went to the “City Singles” office. City Singles was a matchmaking company for older, active people. If you were too old to lurk at the bar and too afraid to try online dating, City Singles was the place to connect. Behind the receptionist’s desk, I found a treasure, three Sandra Brown novels. The receptionist also had a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but fuck that. I took the Sandra Brown novels back to my nest.
The first day, I read Breakfast in Bed in one sitting, and it was amazing. It’s about Sloan Fairchild. Sloan has given up on love, but she allows her best friend’s fiancé, this guy Carter to stay at her bed-and-breakfast inn while he finishes his book. Sloan falls in love with the guy, and now she’s torn between her friend and Carter. Sloan is kind of a doormat, but so it goes. Alicia, that’s her best friend, had a husband who died in an accident, leaving her to raise their two kids. Carter is the best friend of the dead husband. And he feels an obligation to care for her, but it isn’t for love. It gets messed up. And at a certain point, I forgot about the end of the world, and everything horrible I had observed.
The next book I read was Send No Flowers, which is Alicia’s love story, yes, Alicia from the previous novel. She finds this guy named Pierce Reynolds. Now, I’m reading Love’s Encore. By the time Camille Jameson meets up again with Zack Prescott, much to her surprise and years later after she had left him for no good reason, I could breathe. I could get off the couch.
I returned to my keyboard, and started typing. Back to work.
For immediate release. There is still no power. There will be no more power. Electricity gone. We have lost civilization, and civilization has lost the ability to turn on the lights. The computer still isn’t on, but this is my job. So, I will keep typing.
I continued my diversion, working at the last PR agency in the world. I passed the rest of the day with my meaningless typing. At one point, I thought I heard a noise behind me. I turned around, but nothing was there. It was the natural creaking of a building as the interior exhales ever so slightly. Building noises. The barricade was secure. There were no people on this floor. I got up from my desk and checked the third floor, while some sunlight was still left — every office, every room, except the bathroom. This time, to be careful, I took my boss’s putter with me. As I already knew, I was alone. Alone was good. Alone was safe. But it was still lonely. TV would be nice. I went to the office couch, my bed. I lit the candles on the coffee table, and looked at the framed portraits of my co-workers. My manager’s daughter at her graduation. My account executive’s five-year-old nephew. Somebody’s parents. Katie, who I liked, and is probably infected now.
“Hello, family and friends, how was work? Anyone? Work was — ”
There was another creak. I tried to ignore it, but the sound paralyzed me with fear. I gave up on my evening monologue, and tried to go straight to bed, but sleep did not come easily. I could hear a steady wind blowing through the broken window. I could hear the occasional rustling of the people below.
I woke with a jolt. It was still dark outside, but I heard something. Another noise. My mind was working against me, creating phantom sounds that tormented me. People are not meant to be alone in office buildings. In the shadows, my mind tricked me into seeing something across the room. I was wide awake now. I knew I was alone. I knew it. But I was afraid.
I knocked over the framed photos as I moved past the coffee table, hitting the table with my foot. I gasped. I hobbled to the supply closet. I was afraid to open the door. Not because there would be a person inside, I knew there wasn’t, but because I knew my mind would trick me for a half-second into seeing what wasn’t there, and I didn’t want to be scared. I rushed inside the closet, closing the door behind me. Sitting in the corner, in the absolute darkness, I felt safer. And here, I found sleep for a few hours. When the dim line of light glowed from under the door, it was morning and I could leave my panic room.
All day, the fear, once confined to the bathroom, began spreading to the rest of the office. Nothing calmed me, not even the misadventures of Camille Jameson and her search for love. I couldn’t breathe the stuffy air. I was dizzy and paranoid.
I needed to leave the office. Beyond this business park, there must be other people, groups, walls, something better than this self-imprisonment. It may not be safe out there, but I couldn’t stay any longer. Something changed. This place no longer felt safe. This shelter had become tainted with my own distress. I decided to spend one more night in the office, and I would leave in the morning to take my chances out there.
I slept in the closet again.
The next morning, I checked my backpack, crammed a few more supplies. I left the framed photos behind. I took the boss’s putter and a pair of lethal-looking scissors.
I looked at the broken window. There were about six infected people loitering underneath. I considered dropping a table on them, since they were blocking my escape path, but I worried the noise would bring more over. Instead, I went to the office on the opposite side of the third floor, a law firm. I broke a window after a few attempts with a chair. Out the window went all the noisiest items I could find. I hooted and crowed. Soon, the people from my side of the building made their way over, plus a few more. Then, I made my exit. I removed the barricade, the stacked chairs and tables, from the stairwell door.
I raised the putter in one hand and opened the door. The stairwell was dark, as dark as the bathroom. It could be empty, or filled with people. I couldn’t tell. I held my breath as I took tentative steps across the threshold and down the stairs. I listened for any sound, the snarl of something else in the stairwell, but heard nothing. I should have taken one of candles from the coffee table with me. I was an idiot. I couldn’t go back, so I only moved forward into oblivion.
I entered the lobby. The sun streamed through the frosted glass wall at the far end. Dust floated across the broad ray of light. It shimmered, creating delicate sparks, floating in the air. It was beautiful. I saw a young woman in a dress with her back to me. She was looking to the outside, gently pawing at the glass. Her hair was dirty and matted. I knew she was one of them. I got dizzy. I almost fainted. That would’ve been bad.
“Hello?” I called in a quiet voice.
She turned around and snarled. She slid one foot toward me and then the other, a slow lopsided gait, which gained momentum as she got closer. I grabbed the putter in both hands. I could do this. But as she got closer, she looked less and less monstrous, and more human. For a second, I froze. How could I hit another someone with a putter? It wasn’t in me. Then, that second passed, and she was too close. She grabbed my shoulder and opened her mouth to bite. I swung awkwardly, hitting her with the shaft and not the head of the putter. It did nothing to stop her. Her grip tightened. In my confusion, I dropped the putter and simply tried to push her away. She stumbled backward, but still held onto me and I fell with her. We were both on the ground — me, scrambling to get to my feet, and she, thrashing about. I grabbed the putter off the ground, and swung again. This time, the putter connected with her face, denting it inward. I swung again, then a third time and a fourth until she stopped moving and lay still on the ground.
I vomited, then walked to the front door.
I was outside, moving away from the building, far from the people on the other side.
As I got farther away, I felt freer, despite being exposed and in more danger than I’ve ever been in. I turned to look at the buildings in the complex. A few other people, uninfected, stood at their own windows, on their own floors, looking at me. I could not see them before from my office perch — solitary people who went to work on the day the world ended and refused to leave. They each would die in their office and by their choice, preferring to waste away than a death by violence. At first, I couldn’t tell if these individuals were among the infected. But then, I saw someone on the seventh floor of a building next to mine, wave and give me a thumbs up.
David Hopkins finished his first novel, and he’s now working on a ten-book fantasy series. It’s an exciting time in his life.
Sign up for his newsletter and receive a free PDF of his short story collection: thatdavidhopkins.com/newsletter