Man in the Fedora, page 1
Man in the Fedora
By Rachelle Bronson
The night slowly slipped off Anna like an old dirty shirt, revealing more and more of the frigid morning. The tapping on the window pane grew more insistent. A brief moment of dread and confusion froze her beneath her covers. Had they returned? Was it finally her turn to die? She poked her nose out into the cold air, and suddenly she remembered that it couldn’t really be them; after all, the government was taking care of that issue. She remained silent and unmoving for minutes, until she was sure that it really wasn’t one of them that had managed to elude the army. Only then did she throw out an arm to test the air. She shivered and curled back up into a ball.
She groaned and threw off the blankets. “Fine! I’m coming already.”
She rubbed her arms and blew hot breath into her hands. A fire would be the first order of the day. She moved quickly about the small attic apartment, throwing on her robe and slippers, building a decent sized fire in the small stove and placing the kettle on it. She remained crouched in front of the open door to the stove, letting the fire get air and her hands get warm, mesmerized by the dancing flames.
“Alright then,” she breathed, and she moved to the tiny cabinet in the corner of the kitchenette. She pulled out a balled up paper bag, dumping its contents on the counter. Then she took a wooden spoon from its nail on the wall and began slowly smashing up the dried bits of bread into fine crumbs.
She rolled her eyes and brushed the crumbs into her hand, then moved swiftly to the window. She slid the curtain back, opened the window and dumped the crumbs on the window sill in a tiny pile. “There. That’s all I have right now… Stop being such a pest,” she said to the pigeon without even glancing at it. Then she pushed the window back into its frame. She didn’t hear it pop back out over the sound of the screeching kettle.
She hummed to herself, a lullaby her mother used to sing to her, as she moved about preparing her breakfast of tea and toast with jam, not noticing the window inching open. When she was done eating, she stoked the fire and threw her nightgown onto the bed, then padded to the bath in the opposite corner of the room. She ran the water for a few minutes first, and she thanked God that today it was somewhat hot. Stepping in the tub, she drew the shower curtain all the way around. Even though the shower head did not have much pressure, she stood under the water for a long time, until her skin was red and the telephone rang. She sighed deeply, wrapped herself in a towel and raced to answer it before the downstairs neighbors heard. She didn’t want them to know she was home. She didn’t notice that the window was wide open.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Anna. It’s me.” Her sister’s voice sounded urgent.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” She frowned.
“I need you to come and watch the children. Something’s happened at the crematorium, and they need me to come in early for my shift. Frank is there working late. He can’t make it home.”
“Oh… Have they got more of them coming in?”
“I think so.”
“Alright. I’ll be there soon,” Anna said.
She replaced the receiver in its cradle, as a shiver racked her body. That was when she finally noticed that the window was open and the curtain was flapping in the cold October breeze. Her brow furrowed as she moved to close the window, but she stopped cold when she felt a flutter against her bare feet. A sharp scream escaped her lips, and she jumped back quickly, scrambling to get on top of the bed. The pigeon just sat there, its back to her, pecking at the floor, unconcerned.
“Oh, it’s you. Well, aren’t you a clever bird?” she said, still clutching her chest.
She moved to get off the bed, but quickly stopped when the bird turned its head and stared right into her eyes. She gasped. It cocked its head to the side slightly and began slowly moving toward her.
“Shit!” She breathed through her teeth as she finally noticed the blood matted in the bird’s feathers. There were oozing boils of pus and the usually black, bright and inquisitive eyes had now been replaced with glassy, milky pupils that seemed not to really see her. Yet they knew exactly where she was. How could this disease that had infected only humans before, making them into mindless flesh and organ eaters, suddenly take over a bird? But she couldn’t deny the signs; she couldn’t take the risk. She had to kill her little adopted pet, before it attacked and infected her, or before it got away and tore into someone else.
She watched the pigeon she’d lovingly named Lullabelle, as she slowly tried to move off the bed. Left. Right. Left. It managed to sightlessly match her every move, all while gaining ground. If she was to survive its attack, she had to move now. Anna jumped from the bed and ran to the kitchenette, losing her towel in the process. She quickly put her back against the cupboard. And just like she knew it would, the bird launched itself toward her, half flying and half running along the floor. Stabbing with its beak, it jumped and lunged for her so quickly, she barely had time to react. But she managed to slip a steel serving plate in front of her face before the infected bird could peck at the spongy softness of her eyes.
Loud clanging rang through the apartment, vibrating against the walls. Tremors shot through her fingers and up her arms, as the creature’s beak repeatedly hit the steel plate, making it hard for her to hang on to her only defence. Her hands throbbed, her fingertips pecked and bloody. She had to end this now.
Quickly she brought the plate over her head and sliced through the air, bringing it down hard over the little bird’s skull. She stopped only when she heard the bone crunch and shatter. Anna took a deep breath and slid down to the floor next to the bird, examining its lifeless little body. But just as she thought she’d killed it, the pigeon jumped to its feet and resumed its single-minded advance. Dead or not, it still wanted to eat her insides.
Anna didn’t waste a second. She scrambled up on her hands and knees, reached up and opened the drawer where she kept her utensils and wrapped her fingers around the cold metal handle of her gun. She turned and shot the bird straight on. The shot took the pigeon’s head clean off, sending it flying across the room. Now it had to be dead. She squirmed when the headless body returned to its feet, undeterred by the blood pouring from its neck, leaving a trail of sticky red as it pressed on toward her.
Exasperated, Anna grabbed a dirty pot from the sink, scooped up the writhing body, placed the lid over it and popped it into the fridge. No more time to waste. She had to get to her sister’s house.
Anna stood motionless at the corner of the cobblestone street, watching her apartment building, making sure that nothing had heard her gun shot and that they weren’t following her. Noises alerted them. Caused them to converge and reminded them that they were hungry. The human population had nearly all gone from this town. The only people left now were the army and those that ran the crematorium.
She knew now that if a bird could be infected, other animals could, too. She listened. Under the streetlamp, its soft glow illuminating the ash that fell steadily from the sky, she felt oddly safe. She could see the morning sun trying to shed light on the world through the thick grayness all around her, but it never really shined brightly like it had before. Now, dull light was all there was to let her know when it was day and when it wasn’t. The streetlamps were always on. Now that the crematorium had opened another facility, it ran night and day. There was no escaping the constant ash that covered the world. She looked up, flakes falling on her face and catching in her long dark lashes. She tried to imagine that they were fat snowflakes coming down in swirls from the heavens. But that was only for a moment. Suddenly she realized that it was eerily quiet. Too quiet. Though the town was mos
Anna shivered and shoved her hands in her coat pockets, sighing deeply as her fingers felt the cold steel of her gun barrel. It reassured her. As long as she had it, she was safe. She had taken it from her father’s lifeless body, right before he’d been turned, during the first wave of the attacks. Though it had been only a few months, so much had happened it seemed like a lifetime ago. She turned quickly now and moved down the street, her rubber boots leaving prints in the ash. Halfway to her sister’s, she shook her hair and flipped up her hood, carrying on with her head down.
A dog barked. She stopped dead in her tracks.
She leveled her eyes in the direction of the sound, and her breath caught at the sight of a large man across the street. A black overcoat hung loosely on his broad shoulders, stretching to the ground. Long enough to conceal a weapon? A felt fedora shaded his face until he slowly raised his head and made eye contact. Her heart skipped a beat. She was unsure of his motives. He must have been standing there for a long time; there was no evidence of his footprints in the ash. Why was he just standing there? They stared at each other and time passed between them. Then he raised his arm and pointed down the opposite street to her left. She was wary of taking her eyes off him, in case he was trying to distract her, in case he meant her malice, but she inevitably turned and looked in the direction he was pointing.
The train blew its whistle, as it made its way down the track toward the mountaintop, where they had built the crematorium. She knew its multiple cargo containers were packed full of infected humans, and she wondered why this strange man was pointing at it. Everyone from here knew its purpose. When she turned to ask the man why he was pointing at the train, he simply placed a finger over his lips and seemed to vanish among the swirling clouds of ash. She raced across the street to where he’d been, but there was no trace of him. Not even a footprint.
She stood there perplexed by what had just happened, when the barking jerked her back to her purpose. It sounded closer this time, so she moved with haste, in case the dog, too, was infected, like her Lullabelle.
As she marched up the steps of her sister’s large house, she heard the bark again. Had the dog followed her? Facing the street, Anna brought a shaking hand to her sister’s door and gave a sharp knock, unsure if her hand was shaking because of the cold or because of her encounter with the strange man in the fedora. The door swung open quickly, and something small shot out and attached itself to her leg.
“Hi, Aunt Anna,” it said, the words muffled somewhat by a face buried in a long wool coat.
“Hello, Iris,” she whispered back, still looking over her shoulder. “How are you?”
“Your mother didn’t get you breakfast?” Anna started, pushing in through the door. “Let’s see what we can do about that then. I’m here!”
“Mother left,” the little girl said, finally unwrapping herself from her aunt.
“She said she was late and couldn’t wait for you any longer, and to mind my brother and not to use the stove while you weren’t here and—”
“When did she leave?”
“A while ago… What took you so long?”
“Where’s your brother then?” Anna ignored the question. She hated lying to the children. Besides, how could she explain that she was nearly killed by a pigeon?
“In the backyard, trying to get Smoky to eat something,” Iris replied, crinkling her nose. “I think he’s sick.”
“Why do you say that?” Anna asked, removing her coat and boots, and making her way through the house.
“He looks sick.”
Suddenly Anna flashed to her earlier encounter, and she swallowed hard as her heart leaped into her throat. She ran toward the back of the house and yanked the kitchen door open with a hard swing. Iris gasped behind her as the door bounced off the wall. Anna rushed out into the backyard, just in time to see the family dog writhing around under a rose bush.
“Ira, get away from him,” she yelled, grabbing the boy by the collar and dragging him toward the house. The boy yelped in surprise, but he wriggled away from her and raced back toward the dog.
“No. He’s sick, Auntie. I need to make him feel better.”
“Ira… No!” she called after him. Only when hearing the fright in her voice did he stop and return to her.
“Get in the house now. Take your sister with you.”
He simply stood before her, tears filling his eyes.
“Now, please. Do as I say. I will go see about Smoky. And do not open that door until I say it’s okay… Got it?” As much as she wanted to go into the house with them, lock all the doors and windows, and hide, she knew that with the war and everything the family had suffered, the dog meant more to all of them than anyone realized. Only when she heard the door click shut did she make her way to where she had seen Smoky. Anna moved slowly, her scuffle with the boy having raised ash from the cold ground into the air. It obscured her surroundings and created a barrier between her and the dog. She could barely see a foot in front of her. But she could hear the dog whining, just at the edge of the yard. She waved a hand to clear the air, but she decided that following the dog’s noises was easier than seeing. Just then, her foot hit something hard, and she cried out as she fell to her knees.
“Are you okay, Auntie?” She heard a soft whisper come from the house.
“Iris, get in the house and stay inside with your brother. I’m not going to say it again,” she said, whipping her head around.
She heard the door click shut again, and this time the lock turned in place. She took a deep breath and bent down, feeling through the soft ash for what she’d tripped on. A long wooden handle surfaced, and she quickly realized that it was the shovel her sister used to scrape the ash off the back stoop. She used it to help prop herself up from the fall. Pain in her right leg registered as she tried to stand on it. Sucking air in through her teeth, she looked down and noticed that her wool stockings were ripped and bloody. She must have cut her knee the ground.
The dog started barking, and Anna raised her head in his direction. She stood still, as the silence seemed to swallow up all the noise around her. The same silence she’d encountered on the street, when she had seen the man in the fedora. Even Smokey’s barking sounded muffled, like it was underwater. That was when she heard it, a swooshing noise that grew in intensity the more she strained to figure out what it was.
Anna waved a hand again to clear her line of sight, but the ash only danced and swirled around her head, making the shadows dart faster and the light seem like the enemy. She felt a flutter graze the top of her head. Instinct made her duck, but the surprise made her drop her makeshift crutch. She cursed under her breath, as she bent down and blindly felt the ground for the shovel. Then she felt tiny razor-like claws sink into her injured leg. She screamed out in pain, as her attacker didn’t waste a second, pecking with its sharp beak, tearing away her stockings and ripping chunks of flesh from her bloody wound. She had enough time only to pull one pigeon from her and throw it across the yard, before more claws descended from above, digging into her shoulders, and the back of her neck. Through all this she had heard the dog whining again and howling in pain behind her. She knew the birds had gotten to him, too. By the time she managed to limp to the back door, he was silent.
“Open the door… Open it right now!” She waved her arms wildly as she tried to bang on the door and keep the winged things off of her. Their wings flapping, their reveling cackles and the sticky sound of them ingesting her flesh consumed her senses, causing her to become disoriented. “Kids! Please, help me!” Just then, light flooded from the house, blinding her.
With little hands grabbing at her, Anna gritted her teeth through the pain and scrambled into the safety of the house. As her eyes adjusted t
“Stop screaming, now!” she yelled over them. She grabbed them both to her breast as she quickly took in her surroundings. The sight of her twelve year old nephew covered in blood, out of breath and holding a butcher knife made her head spin. Nausea rose in her throat.
“Auntie, you’re hurt.” She heard Iris say, as a rushing sounded in her ears. Before she could reply, she moved to the sink and vomited. She wiped her mouth quickly with the back of her hand, finally noticing her gruesome wounds. She slid to the floor.
“Go get the first aid kit from the bathroom, and then go to your parents’ bedroom.” She saw the young girl hesitate. “Go now, I’ll be up there in a minute.” Iris turned and ran through the kitchen, slipping and sliding on the blood-soaked floor. “Ira, go get my coat.” The boy didn’t move, his eyes wide and teary. “Ira, you did well. Your poppa taught you well. I’m proud of you. But it’s not over. I need you to be brave now. Go quickly… Get my coat from the foyer.”
He was gone only for a moment, but by the time he returned, the bodies covering the floor had already begun to come back to life. Ira opened his mouth in disbelief, too young to remember how the humans had behaved, once infected. He screamed.
“Okay, Ira. Now I need you to focus… Okay, sweetie? One more thing I need you to do.” She searched his eyes for acknowledgement. There was none. “I need you to help me upstairs. We need to go up to your parents’ room. Can you do that?”
Trembling, he nodded and propped her up with his shoulders. They hobbled toward the staircase in the foyer, dead birds following their every move. Anna turned back and saw that the creatures were gaining on them, as she and Ira reached the bottom of the stairs. “Ira, we need to go faster.” They tried to take the stairs two at a time, but her injuries prevented her legs from reaching that high. She had to think fast.
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