The Charred Tree

The Unanswered Phone

Everything was quiet on the second floor of 39 Brooks Lane as Tuesday drew to a close. The light reflected in through the bank of broken windows at the western end of the littered hallway changed moment by moment through most of the yellow-orange-red part of the spectrum before beginning to fade. Nothing moved in the corridor and the only sound that could be heard was the afternoon breeze pushing around the corner and through the broken sashes.

Peter stood motionless behind the door labeled 2B peering through the peephole. He and his roommate, Shaun, had learned the hard way that the zombies had better hearing than either of them could believe. They had been talking with Mrs. Getcham from the apartment below theirs through the air ducts about trading some food when the biters heard them and attacked the building three days ago. The first howl had gone up from the creatures half a block away and Shaun had told her to be quiet. They had watched the creatures in the streets from the windows and suspected their hearing was somehow enhanced. Either she didn’t believe him or just plain lost it because the old woman went right on talking until the pounding started on her door. Mrs. Getcham tried to be silent then but it was too late. Within minutes they had reduced her door to splinters and Peter heard her screams turn into wet gurgles as the monsters began to feed on her. He wondered if what had happened downstairs could have been as bad as the images the creative side of his brain supplied to go with the sounds. Shaun had sat cross-legged on the carpet next to the duct opening—stone-faced and looking into his lap while Peter nearly bit through his lower lip to keep from making any noise or throwing up. They stayed like that all night until they were sure the creatures had left.

Shaun tapped Peter’s shoulder and waited for him to look back before signing, Is clear? We can go? Shaun’s studies in speech pathology and Peter’s work toward becoming an audiologist had led to their friendship and sharing the apartment. Since they would both end up working with the deaf, Peter had agreed to teach Shaun to sign. He still had a lot to learn but he had made progress in a short time.

Peter nodded and answered silently, I think so. Nothing for more than a day. Stay silent. Oil?

Shaun turned back into the dark kitchen. When he returned he held out an almost empty bottle of olive oil. It was the only lubricant they could find in the place and Peter hoped it would silence the hinge on the door that always squawked when it moved. He recalled all the times they had reported it to the Super and it had always been pushed to the bottom of the priority because it wasn’t “dangerous or life-threatening.” Well, it certainly was life-threatening now. Peter opened the bottle and dribbled the last drops of the oil over the betraying hinge and handed it back to Shaun.

Will that do it? Can we leave now? Shaun was impatient to escape the building and try to find some place safer.

Get your things while it soaks in. It may still make noise but we have no more oil. Peter picked up his pack from the floor at his feet. The material bulged on all sides. The pack was too large for his few belongings but they had stuffed it with towels to keep the contents from shifting and making noise. He had also removed every zipper pull for the same reason. They had to move without sound if they were to survive.

Shaun reappeared with his pack and adjusted the shoulder straps. Once satisfied with the fit he signed, Ready. Let’s go.

Peter slowly disengaged the lock and turned the doorknob to pull back the bolt. Time to see if the olive oil would make possible their escape or if he was about to ring the dinner bell for those that once had been his neighbors. He and Shaun shared a glance that needed no words or signs to convey its meaning: This is it. On three. One… two… three!

The door opened in without a sound and the air that came in with it was heavy with the smell of rotting meat. Both men let out sighs of relief and struggled to breathe without gagging before moving toward the stairs. The doors to the other apartments on this level stood open. Peter and Shaun glanced into each as they passed. All were in chaos but 2E was the worst—gore covered the entryway floor and bloody footprints and drag marks lead into the corridor and toward the stairs before fading away. They found another maelstrom of footprints that seemed to originate on the landing halfway to the ground floor. A purple laundry basket and a jumble of women’s clothes were scattered across the landing. Peter recognized the basket and touched Shaun’s arm. He pointed at the basket and signed, Rebecca from 3F.

Shaun nodded and pointed into the darkness of the door to the ground floor. Light going fast. Need to hurry. They entered the dark hallway and quietly walked toward the glow at the far end that was the main entrance.  There was no setting sun to illuminate this passage and they strained against the silence to hear anything that might warn of danger.

The day had faded to full dusk before they entered the foyer. Peter was relieved to discover that the front doors had been damaged to the point of uselessness and stood ajar in their frames. Opening the heavy metal and glass doors without making a lot of noise had been the one part of their plan that neither he nor Shaun had been able to answer. Now it was moot. Peter was halfway across the lobby before he realized Shaun was not right behind him. He looked back and saw Shaun staring down the darkened hallway beyond the main entrance, toward Mrs. Getcham’s apartment.

After retracing his steps to Shaun, Peter signed, We did what we could. She would not be quiet and it got her killed. We have to go.

I know, Shaun replied. Not easier.

Peter laid a hand on Shaun’s shoulder and nodded toward the entrance.

Bats wheeled overhead as they carefully exited through the ruined doors. Peter and Shaun took one last look at the building that had been their home for the last two years. As they took the first step that would lead them out of the city they froze. A bright and happy tune of beeps and whistles came from an open window in the second floor above their heads—a cell phone. They looked at one another and saw that their friend’s eyes were wide with dawning realization and terror.

They ran.

Author’s Note: This story was started in response to an Inspiration Monday prompt from a couple weeks back. When I started writing it I had the basic idea in mind and a 500 word target. By the time I passed 1000 words I realized this setting and these characters might have some legs outside this one story. Don’t be surprised if you see other stories pop up in the future that involve them. Not sure what I will call this set…that’s a question for a later day.

For you flash fiction fans out there, I apologize for this having less “flashiness” than InMon usually has…I’ll try to do better next time.  🙂  ~DBJ

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8 thoughts on “The Unanswered Phone

  1. Tense and dark! A piece worthy of I Am Legend! (I speak of the movie. Haven’t read the book/story.) I love your use of sign as their one advantage, and look forward to reading more about these two.

  2. Pingback: Inspiration Monday: epic naptime « BeKindRewrite

  3. Zombies with incredible ears are a neat twist to the lore. I’m looking forward to reading more of this. Nicely done.

  4. I saw the word “zombies” and sighed inside, but by the end of this piece I was totally caught up in the tension and characters of these two guys and the challenges they are facing. Nicely done!

  5. Pingback: Wake Up To Reality « The Charred Tree

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