Radio Silence - Part 5
a post apocalyptic story
It was over an hour later that Joe and Melanie stood awkwardly in the middle of the empty café. A slim man with thinning hair stood behind the counter, heating milk with the espresso machine.
Joe removed the large backpack he’d filled with food, a pocket knife Char had got him for Christmas one year that he thought he’d never have any use for and had shoved it in a drawer in the bedroom. Melanie had also filled her satchel which bulged and hung uncomfortably on her shoulder. They’d grabbed some extra clothes as well. Just to be on the safe side, Melanie had cautioned. You just didn’t know what would happen.
“Yes mom,” Joe had said and had flinched and ducked out of the way of Melanie’s slap.
“Anything to drink?” the man at the coffee machine said, raising a cup as they entered. “You must be the two people from the radio station.”
Melanie nodded in reply. “Sure. I wouldn’t mind something. It’s cold out there.”
Joe laughed when Frank stepped out from behind the espresso machine. A look of confusion flashed across Frank's face, with an undercurrent of something else Joe couldn’t place.
Joe raised a hand in apology. “Sorry, that’s rude of me to laugh. But I just noticed your glasses, which just struck my funny bone. You know, stereotypical scientist, wearing glasses. All you’re missing is the white lab coat.”
Frank smiled with a tight, thin smile. “I did mention I’m not the kind of scientist who works in a lab with chemicals and things like that, right?” He gestured to himself, and his dark blue button down shirt with light blue check. Hence no lab coat. Besides, I haven’t been at work since it all went down anyway. Well, I went back to the office to back up my data.” He patted the breast pocket of his shirt. “Have it all saved on a USB. You never know when it might come in handy. But really, it’s just a bunch of numbers in spreadsheets and dots on graphs. Nothing that can save the world,” he said smiling shakily. He cleared his throat. “Well that was a strange introduction,” he said. “And you haven’t really introduced yourselves yet.”
“No,” Joe agreed, with a look at Melanie and realizing he didn’t even really know her yet, and now there was this guy who claimed to be involved with what was happening, but not really involved.
“I’m Melanie,” Melanie said, stepping forward and almost bumping into a chair that surrounded a circular table before giving a small awkward wave. “Melanie Barnett. I’m…well, I’m just a…I used to work in a law office. Just as the receptionist. Answering the phone, handing out the mail. That sort of thing. No sort of useful skill for being in the apocalypse. Like karate or anything. Though,” she paused, looking thoughtful. “I have taken a few tai chi classes before, but I’m not sure if that counts.”
“And like I said before, I think, I’m Joe. Joe McCandry. And I’m one of the station managers at CHPL radio. Better known as The Mountain. That’s why you found us. Because I was in there-” Melanie gave him a look. “We were in there. I was just trying to keep things going. Keep the music going. I thought, well, I thought it gave a little bit of normality in all this craziness, you know? Music…well, my boss always used to say music makes the world go round. I know, it sounds ridiculous…” he trailed off, feeling stupid and sheepish.
Frank waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t be silly! Not at all! Radio stations help keep us in touch with what’s going on. I mean, with those traffic and weather updates, you know.” He grinned at Joe, exposing slightly yellowed teeth. “What took you so long?” he asked, pouring out steamed milk into a paper cup. He gestured with the cup. “It took me a few minutes to work out how to use this thing,” he said. “But it looks like I’ve got the hang of it, so if you want a coffee or anything…”
“Actually, I’d love one,” Joe admitted. It was nearly 10:30 and he hadn’t had a coffee. Or something to eat. “Is there anything to eat around here?” He pointed to the items in the glass case inside the counter.
“Oh I wouldn’t touch those. I don’t think anyone’s been here for a few days,” Frank said. “But there’s a fridge back here. There’s probably going to be things in there.”
It was just the three of them. After a while it felt like it was always only just the three of them, no one else. Joe had tried calling his mother a few times but still got no answer except the overly cheerful answering machine message. He’d tried Char again too. At first he thought she was just busy, out in the field, and didn’t have time to answer her phone. Or maybe hadn’t heard it, if she had the volume down too low. But after about the fifteenth time, he gave up.
“I’m starting to hate this thing,” he growled, miming throwing the thing away.
“It’s not the phone’s fault no one is answering,” Frank said in his irritatingly logical way. “Besides, if you threw it away, you wouldn’t have a GPS system or anything else on those mini computers that could come in handy.”
“Or like a camera!” Melanie said, holding up her cell phone and pointing it at them. “Smile!” she said, and a flash went off before either of the men could even protest. Joe scowled at her.
“Relax,” Frank placed a companionable hand on Joe’s shoulder. “She’s just having some fun.” Joe fought the urge to flinch, but he could feel his muscles tense. He didn’t like unexpected contact at the best of times, Char excluded of course, but for some reason, Frank rubbed him the wrong way. Why? He’d been nothing but civil and friendly since that first day in the café. How long ago was that now? The days had blurred into weeks.
“Whatever,” Joe said, turning away to head up the steps of the next house. It was their current plan, search for any other survivors. He jogged up the stairs and knocked loudly on the door. “Hello? Anyone there?” He waited, turning to see Melanie move on ahead to the next house. Frank stood on the sidewalk looking up at Joe. Watching him. When he saw Joe looking at him, he looked away, glancing at his watch. Joe wasn’t an expert on body language, but it definitely looked like Frank had been caught doing something he didn’t want to be caught for. Frank glanced up again and saw that Joe was still watching him and tried to nonchalantly look away across the street, as if he’d just thought of going to that side of the street now and checking on the large pine-green house that was opposite them. Without another look at Joe, Frank jogged over to the large house on the opposite side of the street and up the front stairs.
Joe knocked once more, loudly so that his knuckles stung a bit. There was no answer. He didn’t really expect any, and actually would probably have been more surprised if someone had answered.
He turned away, without the pang of sadness he had been feeling when they had started this venture as they worked their way through the city. He took a step down and saw that Frank was standing on the doorstep of the house across the street, still watching him, but then suddenly pretending he wasn’t.
Joe stopped mid-step, suddenly realizing he needed to go to the bathroom. The sandwich he’d taken from the gas station that morning wasn’t agreeing with him. “That’s what you get when you eat something that hasn’t been refrigerated for god knows,” he said to himself. He was starting to get used to talking to himself, and ignoring the looks and stares he got from Melanie and Frank whenever he did.
“I’ll be right back!” he shouted to Frank. “I need to pee!” Then he turned back to the pristinely painted white door and kicked it. He screamed as pain shot up his leg. “Fuck!” he yelled. “They make it look so easy on TV!” he said, carefully testing his foot, and putting his weight on it. It was sore, but he could walk. What was it they did on TV to unlock doors again? Joe tried to remember, and then it came to him. He opened up his bag, found his wallet and withdrew a credit card. He slid the piece of plastic between the door and the frame, and turned the handle at the same time. Nothing. No movement. He tried harder, and then heard a loud snap as the credit card broke, and fell in two pieces at his feet. “Great,” he muttered. He bent to pick it up then stopped. Why bother? Credit cards were no use anymore. He rummaged around in his bag again and eventually found the Swiss army knife that Char had given him.
He flicked it open and shoved it in the door crease near the handle. '`How the hell does this work? They make breaking into a house look way easier on TV,” he muttered. He shouldered the door again as he stuck the knife in and twisted it. There was a crack and the door opened suddenly, swinging inwards and throwing Joe on the hardwood floor. He groaned, pushing himself up. “I should’ve just waited until we found another gas station,” he said to the empty living room he was facing. He staggered upright, and it was then he noticed the smell, and noticed the shape that was sitting on the couch. He could see the back of a head. A human head. Or what used to be able to be classed as human, he thought. He didn’t want to look any closer. He moved down the hardwood hallway that ran straight ahead from the door, looking for the washroom.
It was the first room he came to, on his left before the kitchen at the end of the hallway, he could see half of a stove through the entryway.
He sat on the toilet, took his phone out of his pocket and hoped he could still get a WiFi signal. “Success!” he said, as he connected to the internet. He Googled something that had been weighing on him for a few days. No, weeks, he corrected himself. Ever since that strange incident back in the café. On the first day, Joe realized with a start. “Signs of a psychopath” he typed into the search bar.
It came up with a variety of links, pages and websites. “Psychopaths exhibit strange, eccentric quirky behaviour and usually they are on some sort of power trip and think they deserve more than they have,” Joe read. “They often make themselves out to be more like second best and then feel that they deserve more than that, that they are entitled to more and will do whatever they can to reach that status. They try to be charming and engaging, so that people won’t notice their strange, somewhat off-kilter behaviour. But every so often the Prince Charming mask will slip, Joe read, and if they notice that you have noticed then you will suddenly find yourself in the danger zone. Psychopaths, like others with mental imbalances, can react strongly, and sometimes negatively.”
That certainly sounded like Frank, Joe thought. He was always there with a big encouraging smile. “Maybe I should give him the benefit of the doubt,” Joe thought. Maybe he was just a very overly optimistic person. A knock on the door interrupted his research and he shouted in surprise, dropping his phone.
“Everything okay in there?” Frank's voice came muffled through the door.
“Yes!” Joe said, a bit too fervently. “Just finishing up here.” Thankfully he had actually finished. He got up from the toilet, flushed and then washed his hands at the sink with small decorative soaps in the shapes of hearts and stars.
Joe opened the door and there stood Frank with a wide grin on his face. Frank slapped him on the shoulder. “Thought something might’ve happened to you buddy!” he said overly cheerfully. “I didn’t want you to end up like that poor la-”
Joe held up a hand in the universal gesture of ‘stop’. “I don’t want to hear about it,” he said. He’d seen too many people. Could they still be called people, if they were no longer alive? He saw so many people that they crowded into each other in his sleep and filled his head as he dreamt turning his dreams into nightmares. “I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know if it’s a man or woman, or an elderly person or a child. They’re all just ghosts to me now. They aren’t real.”
“Well that’s a classic case of denial if I ever heard one!” Frank said with a laugh and shake of his head.
And you’re a classic case of a psychopath, Joe thought.
As they stepped out the front door, Joe saw Melanie leaning against the slate-grey fence that encircled the yard. She glanced up as the two men began coming down the stairs.
“What took you so long?”
“Gas station sandwich. Didn’t agree with me.” Joe said with a half smile.
“Didn’t I tell you not to eat it? You should just stick with vegetables. They’re safer.” Frank said.
“You should know, I guess,” Joe said, “You’re the scientist after all.”
Frank gave Joe a dark look as if what he had said was the biggest insult in the world. Then just as suddenly, as if it were just a cloud briefly passing in front of the sun, he chuckled loudly as if it was the funniest thing he’d heard all day. “You’re right about that!”
Melanie looked from Joe to Frank, and then back again, and then she shrugged. “Come on, it’s getting dark, we should really find somewhere to stay for the night.”
“Do you have any suggestions? Like a hotel or something?” Joe asked, hopeful.
“Don’t be silly, we can’t stay in a hotel!”
“And why not? It’s not as if there won’t be any rooms available,” Joe reasoned.
“Yeah, but how are we supposed to get in the rooms without key cards?” Melanie shot back.
“Oh. Yeah. I didn’t think about that,” Joe said. “But couldn’t we just take the key cards from the front desk?” he said, a spark of hope reigniting and he already pictured a king sized bed with a down comforter and a Jacuzzi tub.
“They have to activate the card for each room, dumbass,” Melanie said. “Unless you’ve worked in a hotel and actually know how to do that?” She looked over her shoulder at him, and he shook his head. “And besides, we’d need to know how to log onto their computer system in the first place. Without that, there would be no way to activate the key cards to get into any of the rooms.”
“Right. Got it,” Joe said, resigned.
“And you’ll remember that for next time!” Melanie said, striding ahead of them. Joe realized that Frank was standing a little too close to him for his liking. He picked up his pace, trying to leave some space between them. Frank obviously didn’t understand the concept of personal space. Maybe he was just socially awkward? Joe thought with a glance back at Frank who now seemed to be looking down at his feet as he walked, and he almost bumped into Joe who had stopped and was staring at him.
“Oh! Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention,” Frank said, smiling apologetically in a way that Joe just found creepy. Maybe it was his glasses? Which frankly Joe found hilarious.
He remembered that first day back in the café when he’d laughed out loud the minute he’d seen Frank behind the espresso machine, wearing his glasses. He’d felt bad about that as soon as he’d done it, but what could you do? It was a gut reaction. At least they weren’t the stereotypical coke bottle glasses, because then Joe would’ve lost it. He shuddered at the thought. He didn’t know Frank all that well, but it seemed like he would not be the type of person to get on the wrong side of. Frank seemed like the type of person who would harbour grudges. And those aren’t good people.
After finally learning the trick to breaking and entering, the three of them were sitting in an empty house.
“You know what I miss most? Electricity.” Melanie said. She sat with a duvet cover wrapped around her, over her shoulders. It was a Doctor Who blanket with a giant TARDIS on it. “Electricity and heat,” she added with a shiver.
Joe had a threadbare woven quilt wrapped tightly around him. And Frank looked like an Ewok swaddled in a thick brown blanket, the kind that people used as throws. He was wearing it over his head like a hood.
“Does anyone know how to start a fire?” Melanie asked, hopefully. The two men glanced at the electric fireplace across the room. It wasn’t any help to any of them now, Joe thought. Melanie turned round at their gaze and spotted the fireplace. “Well I know that isn’t going to help us!” she said irritated. “I meant a real fire. I’m freezing here!”
“We all are,” Frank admitted.
“Well, let’s build a fire!” Melanie said, jumping up from the couch and moving the long wooden coffee table from in front of it to the edge of the room.
“How do you suggest we do that?” Joe asked, eyes narrowing.
“Simple, we just need to go find some branches and twigs and things, and then…go look for a lighter or some matches.” Melanie glanced around the living room. “Look, they have some candles on the mantel, which means they probably have matches somewhere.”
“What are we going to make the fire in,” Frank said. “Have you even noticed the floor?”
Melanie looked down at her feet and the wooden floor she was standing on. “Oh,” she said, disappointment lowering her voice.
“Oh indeed,” replied Frank. “We can’t just put a pile of sticks in the middle of a wooden floor and light them on fire! the whole place would go up!”
“Well, we’d just need to find something to put them in, that’s all,” Melanie brightened. “A bucket or something.” She pointed to Joe. “You look for some matches.” And then she pointed to Frank, “you can go outside and get some branches and things. And I’ll go look for something to put it in.”
She ran off, through the dining room and into the kitchen. Before Joe and Frank had even got up, they heard a shout. “Found something!”. She ran back into the room triumphantly holding a large stainless steel pot. “I think it’s one of those ones that you make pasta in because it has the extra thing inside with all the holes in it. But this should work!” She looked at both men. Joe was halfway into a standing position and Frank had just fully stood up. “What are you both still doing here? Do you expect me to do all the work?” She put the giant pot down on the ground. “I’m going to get a mat to put under here so it doesn’t get too hot on the floor,” she said and ran off.
Joe moved to the mantle where the fat candles sat, dripping wax onto the paint. He found a couple books of matches. “There,” he said, holding them triumphantly. “My job is done!”
Frank glared at him and shuffled toward the kitchen where the door to the back yard was. His blanket trailed behind him like a cape, making a soft swishing sound on the wood. “Watch me get attacked by a feral cat or something out there,” he muttered as he swished his way through the dining room and into the kitchen. The swish turned into a whisper as he moved across the linoleum floor.
Joe heard the click of the back door and Frank’s shoes sounding heavily down the back steps.
Melanie returned holding a small round rug. “Found it in some kid's room,” she said. It had a picture of a train on it, and the train had a face and was smiling a large, inviting smile. She put the mat on the ground and then the pasta pot on top.
Joe held up the matches and tossed a book at Melanie. She caught it with both hands and grinned.
There was a small clock on the fireplace mantle. Why did people always put clocks up on mantelpieces? Joe wondered. The good thing about clocks is, they didn’t stop just because there was no electricity. It read twelve minutes past seven.
“So…” Joe said to fill the silence. “Where are you from?”
“Here. Seattle. Born and raised. You?”
“North Dakota, originally. But my mom lives in New York. The city, I mean.”
“Have you…?” Melanie began, probing.
Joe looked at her, waiting for her to finish her sentence. She didn’t and instead looked down at the bucket and moved it with her foot.
“Have I…What? Run for President? Climbed Mount Everest?”
“Have you been able to reach her? Your mom.”
Joe shook his head. “No. I tried on that first day. The first day that people at my work were getting sick. But maybe my work was behind the times. Maybe the sickness had been happening for a while before that. I don’t really watch the news at all, so I don’t know when it started. I don’t know if I want to know. That would just make me feel worse, you know? If I found out that all this was happening, and I didn’t know about it until a week later or something? Maybe I could’ve done something.”
“Stop it,” Melanie reprimanded with a wag of her finger. “You know you couldn’t have done anything. Just like trying to stop a volcano. You couldn’t stop Mt Vesuvius from exploding and killing all those people in Pompeii, right?”
Joe nodded, grudgingly. “Yeah, but I could’ve warned-”
“No buts!” Melanie said, authoritatively. “No one could’ve warned the people of Pompeii, right? And even if they did. Even if you could have somehow got ahold of your mom and warned her, there isn’t much she could’ve done, right? There isn’t anything any of us could have done. It’s like trying to stop the meteor that hit the earth and killed all the dinosaurs. Same thing.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Joe said. “But still, I feel helpless, that’s all. I still do, even though it’s too late now and everyone is gone.”
“Everyone except us,” Melanie said, giving him a meaningful look. He was about to ask her why she was looking at him like that when they heard a scream coming from the back yard.
“Aaaahh!” It was Frank. “Help me!”
They ran to the kitchen and looked out the window. Frank was huddled in the far corner of the yard, a pile of sticks scattered on the ground around him. He held a particularly large branch out in front of him like a sword and was slashing it viciously back and forth through the air. About a foot away from the end of his makeshift sword was a dog. And not just any dog, but a massive german shepherd. Melanie yanked open the back door and ran out onto the porch.
“Get away from him!” Melanie screamed.
The dog glanced up at them for a second and then went back to focusing on Frank.
“Do something!’ Frank screamed. The dog inched closer, it’s head and shoulders lowering in a predatory manner. Even in the dim light of dusk Joe thought he could see the animals ribs. The thing was starving.
A lightbulb went off and Joe ran to the fridge. He opened it and found what he was looking for. It was putrid and rotten. There hadn’t been any power anywhere for a week at least, maybe closer to two. But it was still meat. He grabbed the package of ground beef from the fridge, and a knife from the knife block on the counter and sliced the plastic open. He nearly gagged as the smell of rot assaulted his nose.
He ran out to the porch, beside Melanie and shouted. “Hey! Dog!”
The dog’s ears pricked up at the sound but his focus on Frank didn’t waver. Joe moved a short ways down the porch, farther away from the staircase.
“Look at this!” Joe shouted and, swallowing bile that rose in his throat, grabbed a handful of mushy rotten meat and threw it over the side of the balcony onto the ground. He whistled. “Come get a treat!”
At that, the dog tore its gaze away from Frank, and moved backwards a few steps and closer towards the lumps of grey that lay on the dark ground. “Come on, you can do it!” Joe urged. He moved a few more steps down the porch and grabbed another disgusting squishy handful of meat. He threw it over and it fell like thick grey rain. The dog had turned away now from Frank and was slowly, cautiously padding over to the meat.
“Come on!” Melanie said, gesturing with both her arms in a ‘come towards me’ motion to Frank.
It seemed like Frank was moving through molasses, but ever so slowly, he crabbed his way sideways along the fence, to the stairs, careful not to make any fast motions to distract the dog who had now come within eating distance of the meat and was sniffing it. And then in a flash, the dog began to eat the meat. Joe tossed the rest of the meat over the railing, container and all.
“Hurry!” He yelled to Frank who was only a few yards from the base of the stairs.
And then Frank sprinted. The dog’s head shot up and he, too, sprinted towards his escaping prey. Frank’s feet pounded up the stairs so hard that they shook.
Melanie ran back into the kitchen, followed by Joe who held the metal screen door open for Frank.
And then Frank was inside. Joe slammed the door with the ring of thin metal and the dog crashed into it, a barking, snarling mass of teeth. After a minute the lure of remaining ground beef drew the animal back down the stairs. It was easier to get at than the people behind the metal door.
Joe closed the heavy wooden door and turned the deadlock with a loud click. “Well, that was close.”
Frank was leaning against the stove, bent over with his hands on his knees trying to catch his breath. “You’re telling me!”
Melanie was peering out the kitchen window again. “I can’t see over the balcony,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s still there.”
“I don’t want to know,” Frank said, eventually unfolding himself. He was still holding onto his makeshift sword. “I dropped the rest of the wood, but I have this.” He said holding it up, apologetically. “Not sure how good of a fire it’ll make but we can give it a try if we break it up into small pieces?”
Melanie nodded and took the branch. She broke it into five pieces. “Better than nothing.”
They made their way back to the living room and she tossed the meagre bits of wood in the bucket, and lit a match. Three matches burned to nothing, leaving her with sore fingers and the wood had just smoked a little. “We need a bit of paper or something,” she said. “Books!” she exclaimed suddenly. “I’ll be right back. I saw some books where I got this blanket.” She let the TARDIS blanket fall from her shoulders onto the floor and sprinted up stairs, taking them two at a time. In a moment she was back with a small stack of books. Hastily she tore out handfuls of pages and tossed them in the bucket.
“Slow down there!” Joe said. “You don’t need to burn down a whole library. We’ll see how we do with this so far and then we can add more if necessary.”
Joe scrunched a couple pages into balls and Frank grabbed some and twisted some of them into sticks. Then Melanie lit the final match in the first row of the matchbook. “Here goes nothing,” she said, tossing the small flame into the bucket. There was silence as the three of them held their breath, waiting. And then a flame jumped to life, followed by another swallowing the paper up, dissolving it. Melanie thought the wood wouldn’t catch, but, amazingly, at the very last moment, as the last scrap of paper was engulfed by fire, a piece of wood began to burn. Meanie tore more pages from the books and threw them in to keep the flame going.
Soon they were sitting around a bucket of flame. They were silent, lost in thought staring at the fire that seemed to move with a life of its own, mesmerizing.
They had moved to the floor and were sitting around the fire cross legged, as if they were all just on a trip and telling ghost stories around a campfire.
“Well, I never thought I’d be sitting around a fire in the middle of some strangers' living room,” said Melanie suddenly. “If only there was someone to tell about this, this would be a hilarious story.”
“You say hilarious, I say terrifying,” said Frank.
“Hey, well you were right. It wasn’t a feral cat, but you were right about an animal.” Joe pointed out.
“I wish it had been a feral cat! Much better than a starving dog who just looked at me like a giant hot dog.”
Melanie got up and disappeared into the kitchen. There was slamming of cupboard doors but eventually she came back. “Look what I found!” she exclaimed triumphantly holding a bag of marshmallows aloft. “And I found some skewers too.”
“What better way to forget about nearly being attacked by a werewolf than roasting marshmallows!” She said, her teeth shining in the fire.
Check out part 1, the start of the story below, or part 5 to remind yourself what happened before. Or 6 if you want to keep reading!