A Sly and Knowing Grin
by Arthur Davis
Kelly Christina Ramos was immediately attracted to the young man scouring the rows of old 78 rpm records in the back of Field’s Antique Shop. He was tall and lean, and with a shy vulnerability about his eyes that she found hopelessly endearing.
From the dilapidated condition of his shoulder bag and frayed jacket collar, she guessed he was a student from one of the local trade schools. She stood up straight, trying to hide any remnant of her slouching posture and indiscriminate belly when the young man grabbed the elderly man standing next to him with claws that only moments ago had been long, delicate fingers, shot out a jaw of razor sharp teeth and sank them into the old man’s neck.
The old man wailed, dropped his newspaper and tried to squirm free. After a few desperate attempts his arms failed, his eyes closed and he sank down against the display case with the young man clinging to his side.
A half-dozen terrified customers ran toward the front of the store. The owner, a man well over six feet and every ounce of three hundred pounds of unflattering flesh, black jeans and filthy black shirt, stood with his arms raised in the doorway.
“No one leaves,” he announced as the frenzied band of customers spilled up against him.
“Are you crazy, get out of the way,” Kelly screamed.
The sweet old man who had graciously let her pass behind him so she could get to a stack of fine Irish linens was dying or, mercifully, had already succumb.
Sounds of flesh being torn and bones crushed spilled from the aisle.
“We have to get out of here,” one of the men said without taking his eyes off the carnage, “or we’re all going to die.”
“Move out of the way,” another demanded, as the pileup knotted.
The manager’s size and strength and resolve were more than adequate to repel the flurry of flailing fists that beat against his body.
“No. Let’s try square dancing,” an elderly woman offered.
“Of course,” another, then another, agreed.
The owner pulled down a stack of records from a shelf overhead and slowly pumped the hand crank that spun the turntable of the antique tabletop Columbia Grafonola record player.
“Square-dancing?” Kelly screamed.
She grabbed the metal waste paper basket and flung it at the window. It bounced back and fell into the display of rag dolls, tin toy cars, wooden duckpins, and paint chipped dumbbells.
“I think he’s stopped,” the woman with wiry red hair said, standing frozen, entranced, staring at the young man. The woman was in her late fifties, slightly overweight, and in a tattered, soiled dress.
The young man rose from the other side of the counter, a chunk of flesh dangling from his jaw. His bloodstained claws reached over the display case and locked onto a stack of Merle Haggard favorites.
“No, he’s not,” a man said, out of breath from dancing with a woman who might have been his wife.
“Let us out of here,” Kelly demanded.
The boy’s face was splattered with an angry swath of red. His head rotated in jerking, twisting motions from side to side. His once tender, forgiving eyes bulged red and distended. He glanced around the shop again and again before dropping back down out of sight.
Another country western tune filled the air with a rueful whine of lost loves and endless disappointment. Only this time no one danced. The owner waved off a curious passerby trying to get into the shop and pulled down the single black shade that separated Fields Antiques from the rest of the world. What had been a space splintered with late afternoon light was suddenly cast into threatening shadows.
Kelly wanted to throw something at the owner. But she couldn’t bring herself to toss any of the records that surrounded her, and had been a staple of her father’s life, an obsession she willingly inherited.
Distant and distorted memories, first of her father, a short burley man who wore almost comically owlish metal rimmed eye glasses, then her mother, a resolute woman whose silhouette looked like it was the perfect female counterpart of her beloved husband, flashed brightly, then flamed out into darkness.
“Could you get me a cold glass of water?” one of the women asked.
She was only a few years older than Kelly, and held a large leather satchel under her right arm. She had been the first to press against the owner when the attack began and the first to back off at the mention of square-dancing.
“You wait right here and I’ll get you a cup from my office,” the owner said and bounded to the back of the shop.
“A man has been killed and you want water?”
The woman shot back angrily, “I’m thirsty. Okay?”
“What’s wrong with that?” her husband demanded. “I could use something cold myself.”
His wife took hold of his sleeve. “You know, Walter, maybe we could go next door to Jensen’s and get a delicious scoop of ice cream? You love their very-cherry-vanilla.”
Without waiting for a response, the woman pulled open the front door, pushed her husband forward and they were gone. Another customer picked up his scattered groceries and rushed out behind them.
“Where did they go?” the owner asked, returning with a cup in hand.
“That’s your concern?”
“You’re a troublemaker, aren’t you?” the owner said to Kelly, drinking the tepid water in a single gulp, and moved back to his cash register.
Of course, there was no ice water, as there would not be any ice cream, or anything else that required a compressor which, in itself, required electricity. The harsh reality was that anyone who had a generator had electricity. And you could get all the gas you needed for a generator from the millions of abandoned vehicles, which had become one of the favorite targets of the smaller patrol ships.
“We’ve been warned about people like you.”
“You’re the one the authorities should be warned about for not letting us out of this place.”
“You can go if you want.”
“Now I can go?” she stuttered, smacking the empty cup from his hand.
The owner wiped a splash of water from his face and announced, “Everyone, you can stay if you want, or go if you want to.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?” she asked, pointing to the young man huddled over the remains.
“Thousands of bodies in the streets and the stench in the air bothers me, lady. Children starving to death by the millions the world over bothers me.”
Kelly had seen the bodies too. The devastation was everywhere. But this world was new to her, and she had lived so much of the last year in denial and doubt, she had a hard time coming to terms with the obvious. “But not a young man killing an old man?” she asked, in a much less demanding tone.
“Lady, we all have to make some sacrifices if we’re going to survive. You know that. Everybody here knows that.”
The chief resident in the upstate hospital where Kelly Ramos had spent the last few months had that same, smarmy glare, as though he knew something she didn’t and, if she had, she wouldn’t really have comprehend.
She had seen that sly, knowing grin on the face of the owner of the grocery store yesterday when she arrived in the city. She had seen it in men and women everywhere since being released from the hospital only days ago, and many months after the car accident that claimed her father and left her with a painful limp, and in a constant state of crippling, suffocating anxiety.
A man in his early forties entered the store and acknowledged the manager with a friendly wink. “Well?”
“I have both right here,” the owner said and pulled out a pair of books on model railroads from behind the counter. “Twenty-nine even.” The man paid, took his parcel, but not before noticing what was going on in the aisle, shook his head in despair and left.
The owner threw the special pick-up slip into the waste paper basket that had bounced off the double-thick security window he had installed last year, and which now functioned as a sound baffle against the terrible vibration the patrol saucers made as they swept low over the neighborhood every few hours.
It had been only weeks, thirty-seven days to be exact, since heavy assault cruisers rained down destruction. There was no warning. There was no defense. There was no explanation. There were no negotiations. City after city across the globe fell to the consuming onslaught.
Kelly sneezed, reached into her bag and removed a wad of tissues, wiped her nose and recalled one the doctors, the one who had been particularly sexually aggressive towards her, warning that she might go through a period of crippling self-doubt.
“You may feel fearful, unable to make decisions, even hesitant to cross the street at times. It’s common,” he had said without looking up from her file. “Good luck,” he added, and ushered her out of his office.
He never said how long it would last, or if she would ever recover. Maybe it would have been better to remain in the hospital, stay a few months, a few lifetimes, longer. The psychiatric wing of the hospital where she was sent to recover from her guilt and deepening depression was nothing more than a run-down clinic. But in these times, even before the invasion, much of the world was already living in a compromised state.
She was discharged, along with every ambulatory patient, weeks after the first attack. And after the military of every nation struggled to repulse the invaders and nuclear weapons were quickly abandoned as they exploded prematurely, wiping out whole military bases and nearby communities.
There was no warning, no message from the President or Pentagon announcing the invasion, or the nation’s or world’s plans for defense. One morning the cruisers appeared hundreds of miles overhead and descended, wiping out bridges, tunnels, and power plants; wherever infrastructure was necessary to sustain the lives of their enemy. Lines of communication were cut along with transmission lines that fed the appetite of the world economy. Every nation was struck simultaneously with the same relentless overpowering force. There was no place to turn, no place to flee. Only the certainty of death.
But life went on, almost immediately, insistently, as a collective desperation for calm quickly turned into denial and finally, acceptance. With communication nearly impossible, cities quickly fragmented into communities, communities into towns and eventually, the world settled into an infinitely frail web of isolated, ravaged villages.
After weeks of carnage came the demands, and the brutality of reprisals that were frequently used to dampen uprisings and keep the inhabitants in constant fear and subjugation.
At first, Kelly wanted to call home, make contact with what remained of her family, tell them she was free, and would they forgive her for not being able to avoid the van that struck her father’s side of their car. Why had God chosen to take the life of such a good man, she questioned over and over in the condemning glare of friends and family as the procession of lives moved from cemetery to the unending aftermath of tragedy.
Even with an unstable gait and some hairline scars near her forehead, she was positive she could rebuild her life, though life on earth had changed, and her planet had quickly been beaten and humiliated into submission.
The twenty-mile trek from the hospital to the city had taken her almost four days to complete. Many of the patients who started out with her were quickly spotted and cut down. Only traveling on foot and at night was possible.
The saucer ships zigzagged across the sky, hovered, fired, left some villages untouched while decimating their neighbors, and moved on to the next cluster of humanity. A few shops were open, a few food stands, some week-old fruit, and fresh bread from people’s ovens. What was most startling was not how quickly so many were overwhelmed and killed, but why so many people simply disappeared.
The owner seemed smaller, less imposing now, fumbled absently through the day’s few receipts until he could no longer bear the pretty young girl’s sorrowful stare. “Listen, you have to come to terms with what’s happened.”
Kelly hesitated until she could no longer contain both fear and the need to understand, and accept how she needed to adjust. “Which is?”
“The end of our world, our freedom, what we spent a million generations building.”
“And the answer is square dancing?”
“I know. I know. It’s crazy, and no one knows how that got started.”
Kelly still felt unsafe, though not as confused or unconnected, as she had been for the last few days. She forced herself to trust this stranger. She had to trust someone. “So whenever one of them wants to kill one of us we all clap and dance around and that makes them go away?”
“The ones who first protested saw their towns consumed in green flashes so powerful they melted cars and trucks where they stood. At least I have a phonograph. Mostly people just hum any tune they know. I guess it calms them down.”
“I wasn’t here. I really didn’t know.”
“Look, I’m getting out. You want to stay here you’re welcome to do what you can, but I think the old man is long past dead and I don’t want to be next on the kids menu.”
“You’re leaving?” she asked, as though she were being abandoned.
The owner finally introduced himself as Manny Perez. The shop had belonged to his brother who, she learned, was one of the first to go into the streets when the battle cruisers broke through the country’s flimsy defenses. He was swept from the streets by a howling green flash. Manny pointed out where Johnny had been standing, along with a small band of frightened onlookers when they were cut down.
What had occurred in the shop was common, and tame, in comparison to when one or two would attack a dozen people in malls, parking lots or supermarkets. These outbursts were becoming more common and depraved. What was worse, the savage species could transform itself at will, without notice or warning, and so easily assume another human form.
“No one knows who they are talking to anymore. You could have been one of them. You still could be,” he said, before turning away.
Kelly watched him disappear down the block. A few people were moving about, their faces fixed with fear, not looking left or right, not making eye contact. She wanted to do something. For once, take a stand and make her life count. She needed to give meaning to who she was, or could possibly have been.
Two giant silver saucers glided slowly, a thousand feet above the still smoking rubble. They were huge and had no markings. They had to be two or three times the size of the largest commercial jet, with a small raised metallic nub at the center. Kelly was transfixed by their effortless presence as they slowly glided out of sight.
Kelly couldn’t recall if she had had breakfast and, for a moment, couldn’t place the time of day. These blank spots, as Dr. Halpren described them, these moments of confusion and disorientation, were normal and were to be expected. But they still rekindled fears that she might never return to a normal life. Then again, Kelly mused, what was the chance of that happening now that she and the rest of humanity was lost forever?
She watched three men lifting and pulling and giving hushed directions to each other amid the narrow confines of what at one time had been a jewelry store. They were scavengers, pillagers looking for valuables among the ruins of mankind.
If their efforts hadn’t held her attention she never would have noticed a familiar figure moving along the street in front of a row of burned-out buildings.
The tips of her fingers tingled. Heat surged into her face. Her heart pounded as the old man shuffled along, nodding respectfully as a woman passed, going in the opposite direction. His stoop, his age, the way he held one hand clenched tightly against his ribcage eliminated any doubt. She watched a moment longer, then was swept up in a torrent of rage when she noticed a familiar shoulder pack strapped across the old man’s stoop.
A white plastic bucket filled with tools sat unattended at the curbside near where the men were working. A small hand pick axe was clustered in with other tools. She walked over and removed the axe. It was unexpectedly light and rested comfortably in her hand.
The thick metal arc that crossed the top of the foot long wooden handle was rusted and scared. She wondered why she hadn’t sought out the comfort of such an instrument sooner. A few people saw what she had taken and walked on with a heightened sense of urgency.
The old man shuffled along as Kelly recalled, to her delight, a time when she could scamper down a block with her sister in a breath, turn around, and tag up where she began—faster than any child in the neighborhood. Now, more than twenty years later, that same fire and force of youth and focus was rekindled in her damaged legs. By the time she heard the angry cry of the scavengers and their apparent chase, she was halfway towards her target.
The pick axe swung easily at her side. It was reassuring. Comforting. And, while there was injustice there had to be justice, and principles that would be the foundation of a rebirth of civilization. Kelly felt that truth, and a glow of optimism pulsed through her veins.
By the time she was a dozen yards away, people were standing back against the stores and moving into the street to avoid her and the gang in pursuit. The pain in her legs was as bad as it had been since the crash, and yet hardly noticeable.
When there was no possibility of altering her path, the old man turned. His face was clam, even placid. Just as she had seen it in the antique shop. His warm green eyes revealed neither fear nor surprise. The arch in his back was just as bowed even with the added weight of an empty backpack.
“You’re making a very foolish mistake,” she expected him to say as the sharp rusted tip of the pick axe swung downward as a flash of green burst from a patrol ship high overhead and out of sight.
As the point of the pick axe plunged through a mat of wispy white hair the old man’s face changed into that of the young man to which she had first been attracted. Then, as the metal point speared through flesh, another face appeared. A woman in her late fifties with oily skin and a genetically unfriendly grimace. Once the resistance of cranial bone was breached another face, and then another morphed until half a dozen faces appeared and withered before the green flashed warmed, then incinerated Kelly Christina Ramos’ bones and viscera, in an incandescent puff.
In one withering explosion a sigh of relief race through her tortured soul. She only wished she could have been a spectator at her own death, and witnessed her own rebirth, and conjured the image of a plume of doves as they gushed out of her heart and into the promise of a better tomorrow.
This story previously appeared in Tales To Terrify April 2014.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Arthur Davis is a management consultant who has been quoted in The New York Times and in Crain’s New York Business, He has been published in a collection, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, received the 2018 Write Well Award, received Honorable Mention in The Best American Mystery Stories 2017. Additional background at Arthur Davis at Amazon.com, Poets and Writers, and Tales of Our Times.com.