#5 – Hell Hospital

The elevator chimed softly when it reached the fourth floor. The man disembarked, taking a left at the junction. Sterile white walls framed the corridor. Low humming lights flickered above. People walked with brisk intent down the hall. The man walked between them, effortlessly altering his path as he went, briefcase in hand. The words PALLIATIVE CARE and an arrow pointing to the right were mounted on the wall at the next intersection. The man with the briefcase went right.

He found himself in another hallway, this one with a window at the end. A portal of light so as to make the hall look dark. The nurse’s station was on the left when he entered. It was quiet and dark and a half-drunk milky cup of tea was the only sign that anyone was still around. This was no surprise. Stryker preferred not to make weekend calls if he could avoid it, but sometimes there were no two ways about it. He glided past the nurse’s station without signing the visitor’s log. He walked to the end of the hall and into the room on the right.

The room was quiet and dim. An insistent, rhythmic beeping was the only sound. Stryker stepped up to the foot of the bed and tapped his pen on the tray-table that stood there. After a few moments, the resident of the bed woke up. For the deeply ill, wakefulness appears often as a simple fluttering of the eyes, perhaps a movement of the mouth. For Stryker, it was enough. He had a responsibility to his client to offer the best services possible, and that often meant adapting to their disabilities.

“Mr. Moorhouse,” Stryker began, “it’s a pleasure to see you again. I sincerely hope you’ve been doing well. I’ve heard the news that your illness is liable to move more quickly than anticipated. Please accept my deepest condolences; I was filled with a terrible sorrow at the news. As much as my work forces me to confront the reality of life and death, I still often find myself overwhelmed by the randomness and the injustice of it all.” His voice was quiet, practically a purr. It carried a beguilingly calm tenor, but was still loud enough to be heard by all who needed to hear it. “I have brought the final papers concerning the matters of the estate. Simply sign here, as best you can, and I will ensure that all parties are paid as we discussed.” He held out the forms, bracing them against a clipboard. With his other hand, he placed a pen in the dying man’s hand and brought it to the paper. He felt the barest twitch of the man’s wrist muscles against his fingertips as he traced out the man’s signature. 

“Thank you,” he whispered as he tucked away the documents. “Everything is in order, Mr. Moorhouse. Please allow me to thank you for your trust in me. I hope your remaining days are pleasant, pain-free, and that you are surrounded by the love of your family and friends.” He snapped the briefcase shut.

“Good-bye, Mr. Moorhouse.”

The hospital was still quiet as he left. The nurse’s station had an occupant now, but she was busy on the computer and took no notice of Stryker’s passing. The influx of people on the way in had been replaced by an eerie silence. He saw not another soul as he walked back to the elevator. His footsteps tapped an insistent patter against the cold walls. He once heard the distant sound of a custodian with a squeaking cart, but could not pinpoint its location. 

When he arrived at the elevator and pushed the button, Stryker found that he was holding his breath. He exhaled slowly, letting the air part his lips. Though he was a stoic fellow who did not shy away from the grimmer aspects of his work, he always found the hospital visits unusually unnerving. There was some quality about these places that he despised, as if the building itself was brushing up against the bounds of human existence, crossing over whenever another soul was claimed.

The elevator door shut. 

There was a groaning sound as the machine spun into motion. The car began to descend. Stryker stood by the console, briefcase in hand, waiting for the doors to open. He had only one more call to make, this one at the Cedar and Oak Retirement Community, then he would be finished his rounds for the weekend. He turned his mind to thoughts of home. 

The elevator door opened.

It took Stryker a moment to account for the difference, for the lack of light. He assumed at first that he had stopped on the wrong floor, but the dull digital light above the door read G, and pressing the button again made no difference. Confused, he stepped out of the elevator. He wondered perhaps if he had gotten turned around and stepped into the wrong elevator bank. 

He appeared to be in an unfinished wing of the hospital. Plywood walls were erected around all sides of the elevator landing. Plastic tarpaulin hung limply overhead and along one wall. The walls emblazoned with strange patterns in scarlet paint. Symbols indescribable. Stryker stepped out into the low gloom, wondering if he was underground. Grey light filtered in from somewhere, but he could see no source. 

“Hello?” called Stryker. 

The echoes of his voice sounded back, but nothing more. The only way forward was through a gap in the tarp. It was dusty and looked unused.

“This is ridiculous,” muttered Stryker. He turned to the elevator and pushed the button to summon it. It clicked under his thumb, but nothing happened. He pressed it again. Harder. 

Still nothing. Stryker kicked the door, but that only made his foot hurt. He placed his briefcase on the ground and then tried to fit his fingers into the seam of the doors where they met in the middle. He was able to grasp the lip of each door. He pulled with all of his might, straining against the door until he heard a stitch pop in his jacket. The door didn’t even budge.

“What the FUCK!?” cried Stryker. Blood pounded in his head. He wiped sweat from his brow. Angry and resigned, he picked up his briefcase. He was sure a quick stop with the hospital administration wouldn’t take more than a few minutes. He took a last parting look at the elevator before he left the room through the gap in the tarp.

The halls beyond were only dimly lit. Whatever light had filtered through in the vestibule by the elevator did not extend to here. Instead, only hazy yellow bulbs lit the way, perched atop blackened lamps. The light was sickly, unnerving. The sound of his footsteps seemed cacophonous when placed against the quiet. The walls down this corridor were silty and grey, the colour of waterborne sediment. Arrows had been hastily drawn on the walls long ago, judging by the layers of dust. Stryker wondered why the place was so quiet, considering the amount of construction underway. Surely they had some labourers to work weekends. He moved quickly through those halls, praying that his innate sense of direction would guide him to the nearest stairwell.

Stryker rounded the next corner, and was met with a room bathed in a deep red light. The room appeared to be a waiting room like any other in the hospital. Rows of chairs like pews set out under vacant TVs, gilded with racks of magazines from decades past. The hallway turned and disappeared around a bend, past the nurse’s station which stood derelict and empty and black. Little more could be seen in that angry light; the shadows were dark and leaping. Suddenly, the wash of fear that had threatened to overwhelm him was replaced by a well of relief; the light’s source was a neon EXIT sign which shone dumbly into the dark. It crowned a set of double-doors. On the doors was the universal sign of egress: a man climbing a set of stairs.

Stryker almost whimpered with relief, rushing for the door. As he moved, he shifted his briefcase to his left hand so that he could press against the door with his full weight. He slammed into it faster than he intended.

Unfortunately, the door did not open. Instead, Stryker’s shoulder gave way with a great shuddering pop. This was punctuated by his scream tearing apart the silence. He slid down against the door, whining softly. 

Stryker’s arm hung limp and dead at his side. Vague memories of a teammate popping in another player’s arm on the football field rose in his mind, dead since high school. His left hand rose without asking, reaching toward his right. Its fingers encircled his wrist, hovering seductively. Perhaps if he just–

“No!” said Stryker, pulling back his delinquent arm. Odds were only that he’d make it worse. He was in a hospital, for God’s sake. Surely somebody would be able to treat him. He reached up with his left arm and gripped the bar above him. It depressed but did not open the door. He pulled himself up with it, gritting his teeth as his dead arm swung flaccidly in place. Now on his feet, he turned and began to consider another exit.

It was then that the light flicked on in the nurse’s station.

The light was warm and golden and poured into every corner of the room. Startled but relieved, Stryker strained to make out the figure behind the frosted glass in the room beyond. He scanned the desk and saw a gleaming metal bell. He tapped it thrice with his good hand. The clarion sound rang out. The figure behind the glass stopped suddenly, then turned toward the door on the left side of the window. It swung open. The on-call nurse stepped out.

For a moment and despite the pain, Stryker was caught off guard by the woman before him. A slender, waifish figure, her eyes were pale lavender over her mask. As she approached him, they grew darker; violet almost. They were framed with black eyeliner and pierced him as he stepped to the desk. 

“I see you’ve suffered an accident,” she said. Her voice was soft, yet precise. It seemed to assure him that he was now safe. Stryker smiled to see her. 

“Yes,” he said. “It’s been a terrible day so far. I was conducting some business with a client on the fourth floor, then took the wrong elevator and ended up in the construction area just over yonder. Then I found this door, and in my haste I’m afraid I’ve dislocated my shoulder. Is there a doctor available to help?”

The nurse nodded along as he spoke. “I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “The fourth floor? You have a client there?”

“Yes,” said Stryker. “A Mr. Stephen Moorhouse. I’m afraid I can’t go into greater detail as to our arrangement, attorney-client privilege and–”

“I’m terribly sorry to be the one to have to tell you this,” interrupted the nurse, “but Mr. Moorhouse passed away just moments ago. They’re bringing him to the morgue now.”

“Oh,” said Stryker, uncharacteristically caught off-guard. “I’m sorry to hear that. I imagine you’ll notify the family? I’ll make sure all of the paperwork is drawn–”

“No, no, I don’t mean to make you go to all of that trouble,” said the nurse, interrupting again. “I just thought you might want to know.” She gestured behind Stryker. He turned and saw a wheelchair. “Why don’t you have a seat?” she asked. “I can bring you through to a doctor as soon as one’s available.”

“Yes, uh, okay,” said Stryker. He was still trying to calculate the timing of Mr. Moorhouse’s death in his head. How long had it been since he’d left? He sat down in the wheelchair. It rolled backwards a few inches. He checked his watch and tried to calculate when he had arrived and when he had left. How long had he spent trying to get back into the elevator? How long had he spent wandering the halls? He sat back in the wheelchair, then sat up suddenly when he realized he had forgotten his briefcase. He tried to ease himself out of the chair, wincing at the lancing shots of pain that tore through his shoulder. His efforts were stopped by a hand on his chest.

“Allow me,” said the nurse. Her eyes smiled at him over the mask. She stepped over to the briefcase, picked it up, and then placed it on the desk. “It’s right here for when you get back, okay?”

“I–I need it,” said Stryker lamely. “I’ve got all kinds of confidential documents in there. I really can’t leave it unsupervised.”

“It’s not unsupervised, silly!” chirped the nurse. “I’ll be right here with it while you’re in with the doctor.” She patted the top of the briefcase, producing a dull thumping sound. Her eyes fell to her watch. “Speaking of which, it’s about that time now! Let’s get you all fixed up.”

Stryker raised his hand to protest further, but the nurse swept past him and grabbed the handles on the wheelchair. She pushed and the wheels squeaked into motion. They rolled down the hallway beyond the nurse’s station, towards a set of pale doors with portholes for windows.

“Careful,” she whispered to Stryker. “There’s a bit of a bump.”

Stryker didn’t realize what she meant at first – was there some kind of divot in the floor? – and then the feet of the wheelchair struck the doors, swinging them open as if some uncanny kitchen lay beyond. The jolt of the impact rippled through Stryker’s body, causing him to cry out with pain. Spots bloomed before his eyes. The world swam.

“Aw jeez, I’m sorry!” said the nurse. “I didn’t think it would hurt that bad, what with the injury being in your arm and all.”

Stryker turned in the chair as much as he could, blinking away the pain. This had been the final indignity. “Are you insane, woman? Let me tell you, this whole hospital is in for an absolutely apocalyptic lawsuit! First the elevator takes me to an entirely separate section of the hospital. Then I find that section is under construction, without any kind of warning sign or direction as to the way out – not even a fucking drywaller to point me in the right direction! Then, when I finally find the way out, you hide in your little fucking booth and allow me to dislocate my fucking shoulder on a door – one which, for some reason, doesn’t even work!” Spit flew from his mouth as he spoke, spattering the front of the nurse’s scrubs. He didn’t care. Stryker believed firmly that people deserved exactly as much as what they gave out. 

“Look, mister, I’m sorry. I know you’re in a lot of pain, and I think that’s made you pretty grumpy. I totally get that, and I won’t hold it against you. In fact, I think I have just the trick!” She reached into her pocket and shuffled around.

“I don’t need anything other than a doctor and my briefcase,” insisted Stryker.

“Well, the doctor’s on the other side of this door,” said the nurse. Only then did Stryker realize they had stopped. A sign on the wall read Office of Dr. _______. The name seemed to drift and fade whenever Stryker focused on it. He shook his head cartoonishly, perhaps in an attempt to clear his vision. It didn’t work.

“You’ll get the briefcase back after you’re all fixed up,” continued the nurse. “ I don’t know why you don’t believe me when I say that.” She considered for a moment. “I don’t want you behaving with the doctor the way that you’ve been with me. He really doesn’t have patience for that sort of thing.” 

Stryker turned to speak, incredulity roaring inside him again, but was interrupted by the nurse clasping a hand over his mouth. His eyes rolled with panic. He felt something on his tongue, then realized the woman had slipped him some pills. They rolled around in his mouth. When the nurse realized he had not swallowed, she pinched her thumb and forefinger around his nostrils. Alarm tore through Stryker. He fumbled with his good hand at her wrist, but it was his left hand and her grip was iron strong. At last he gave up, swallowing the pills.

“What the hell was that?!” he cried, gasping for air.

“Just a little something to help you feel better,” said the nurse. “Now it’s time to see the doctor!” She knocked sharply on the door, then leaned forward across Stryker’s body to open it.

The room beyond was dark. The nurse pushed him further out to sea. The light from the door behind them the only sign of shore. The wheelchair stopped moving. Stryker waited a moment for something to happen, then realized with a start that the nurse was no longer there. Then, with little notice, the door swung shut, leaving Stryker in the cavernous black.

How he screamed and howled! Fits of roiling fury rolled through the lawyer, coming in ebbs and flows and then great waves which threatened to bathe the entire room in a wash of red, so great was his anger. When at last he was exhausted, his throat was raw and his shoulder ached violently. Anger began to turn to fear. Man was not meant to enter places like this, Stryker thought. Man was meant for places where the sun shone freely and the darkest nights were still bathed in starlight even in the absence of the moon, perhaps with the sound of water lapping gently against some distant shore, and the cries of bullfrogs and the buzzing of the night insects like a distant orchestra thrumming with the sounds of the reeds in the woodwinds buzzing like the reeds in the water and then Stryker realized he was stuck in his chair and the panic set in anew though the pain had gone and he was then struck with the knowledge that he was incredibly, impossibly high, and he laughed and laughed in the inky pitch of that room thinking of how he would sue the nurse, then the doctors, then the whole fucking hospital before he was through.

Stryker’s giggles had just begun to subside when the lights came on, spinning like wheels on the ceiling, kaleidoscopic patterns striking out to the walls in an effervescent pilgrimage. They shone on the operating table which gleamed a wicked metallic colour and behind it stood a man in a white jacket whose lips were peeled back to his black eyes revealing great raw bloody gums and tombstone incisors. Stryker screamed with laughter, gasping and fumbling in the chair and even though the pain in his shoulder was white-hot he pushed himself free of the chair, falling to the floor. The doctor said something and the sound was a cannon’s boom in that quiet room and Stryker yelled BELAY THAT ORDER for he had seen enough movies to know when an order needed belaying, but nobody listened and two shadows materialized beside him and lifted him screaming on to the table. A flash of scissors and his shirt fell away, exposing his naked belly to the room entire. The doctor said something more and the sound this time was a low murmur which crept and skittered over Stryker’s skin. Restraints appeared and held Stryker to the table. Stryker screamed and shook at them to no avail.

The doctor bent over Stryker, the slavering mouth hovering but inches before him. When he spoke, the words sounded inside Stryker’s head.

“Well,” he said, “let’s take a look at you. Normally I would have had our nurse take you to radiology, but you were so terribly rude to her that I think it’s best if we find another solution.”

Stryker opened his mouth and the words flowed out onto his chest, all different letters jumbled up and lost.

“We’re going to have to quickly realign the arm. You’ve been moving it about so much that I worry for the tendons. I just need to finish with Mr. Moorhouse, then I’ll be right with you.”

The doctor then got up and walked over to another table. Cold filled Stryker’s chest. His client was sitting up on the table, totally naked. He waited patiently as the doctor listened to his chest and then looked inside his mouth and his ears. Eventually, the doctor clapped the dead man on the shoulder.

“Good to go,” he said.

Mr. Moorhouse leapt to his feet and stepped up to Stryker. The light shifted and Stryker saw that the old man’s eyes were scratched out. 

“Goodbye, Mr. Stryker,” said Mr. Moorhouse. The old man then turned and walked through the door. A brilliant light shone beyond and the man disappeared.

“Now,” whispered the doctor in his ear. “Back to you.”

Stryker felt great rough hands grasp his injured shoulder. He opened his mouth to beg but was silenced by a piercing shock of pain. He blacked out. He dreamt things that man is not meant to dream. Planes of being swam before him: entire worlds; all worlds. They spun away into an unfeeling darkness.

When Stryker woke, he was in a bed. Light shone in through a window. An IV was connected to his wrist. His head pounded. His shoulder was in a sling and ached dully. He saw his briefcase lying on the small visitor’s table. He looked around the room with awe, clenching and unclenching his fist against the thin polyester of the sheets. 

A knock on the door made him jump, but he relaxed when he saw a smiling nurse looking at him with kind eyes. He recognized her from the nurse’s station in the palliative ward.

“Where am I?” he asked. His voice was a gravelly croak. His throat felt dry and raw.

“Just a recovery room,” she said gently. “We’re not totally sure what caused it, but you had some kind of episode when you learned that your client, Mr. Moorhouse, had passed on. It caused you to fall and dislocate your shoulder. I guess you’re lucky it happened in a hospital, right? Not very far to go for treatment.”

“I-I had some terrible dreams.”

“Dreams can’t hurt us, Mr. Stryker. That shoulder sure can, though, so I’m going to run through a few exercises with you to make sure everything’s all set, then you should be good to be released today.”

“Right, okay,” said Stryker. He laid back in the bed and finally allowed relief to take him. 

Two months later, Stryker got the bill in the mail. He had actually almost thrown it out; he had been so occupied with finalising the late Mr. Moorhouse’s estate that anything else seemed secondary. Luckily, the logo of the hospital on the front of the envelope caught his eye. He tore the letter open and unfolded the bill. When he saw the last line item, he gasped and dropped the letter. Panic gripped his heart and he was forced to sit down. His shoulder had begun to throb.

Shoulder Setting – $880

Wheelchair Use – $300

Sling – $200

Plutonian Painkillers – $750

Consultation – Abbadon Ward – $666

Stryker looked at the letter for a long time. Perhaps some part of him hoped that doing so would change it. But it didn’t. 

With a sigh of dismay, Stryker picked up the phone and called his insurance company.

#4 – I Took A Picture

“I took a picture,” said Jeff to his mother, tugging on her pant-leg. “Look at it.” He held it upright, waving it at her. “I took a picture with my camera.”

Leanne smiled. Jeff’s camera was one of the small old-fashioned Polaroids you could get for a hundred bucks at the electronics store. Jeff had been interested in photography ever since he’d begun reading Spider-Man comics and decided that he wanted to be Peter Parker, so it had made for a perfect Christmas gift. But now it was dinner that same day, and there was no time to be looking at pictures.

“That’s very beautiful, sweetie,” said Leanne, barely glancing at it. She saw a dark blotch and little more. The light never seemed to work right for those cameras, but she didn’t have time to think about it; she was in the middle of figuring out the stuffing recipe Jaz at work had given her. She hadn’t made stuffing in years, and she hadn’t planned on it this year, but then her parents had told her they’d be in town after all and so she had felt obligated to do things perfectly. Looking down at Jeff, she was sure she was doing the right thing. That didn’t make it any less stressful. 

“You didn’t look, mom.” 

“I did! It was very pretty.”

“It’s not pretty, it’s art. It’s a portrait.”

“A portrait of who?” asked Leanne absentmindedly. 

“I don’t know who he is. I just saw him and took a picture and then ran away.”

When had Jeff gone outside? The weather had been awful this Christmas, raining insistently for the last three days. There wasn’t a speck of snow to be seen, either; Leanne was disappointed by this. She remembered white Christmases all through her youth, and hoped that Jeff might one day remember them, too. “Well,” she said, “it’s not polite to take pictures of strangers without their permission.”

“He asked me to,” came the answer from below.

Circumstance might have still allowed for things to be different at this point. If Leanne had not been so distracted, or her parents sleeping so quietly in the next room, then perhaps Jeff might not have taken another picture that day. 

“Well,” said Leanne, “that’s a little bit different. It’s okay in those circumstances. But please make sure to only take pictures of strangers when mommy is around, okay? I don’t want anybody taking it the wrong way.”

“Okay, mom.” 

Satisfied, Leanne bent down and kissed her son on the top of his head. Jeff endured this, then walked around the kitchen island and through to the adjoining living room. Grandma and Grandpa slept on the plush sofa, their heads each lying softly on the other’s shoulder. Some old black-and-white film played on the screen before them, the MUTE symbol flashing on the left. Jeff thought about waking his grandparents under the pretense of telling them they were missing their movie, but decided not to. He would show them the picture at dinner.

With little to do before then, Jeff decided to practice with his camera some more. He walked into the dining room. The table wasn’t as big as it had been during Christmases where dad was still around, but that was okay. It still looked beautiful. Once before, Jeff had suggested to his mother that they open up the leaves and make a setting for Dad, but then his mother’s eyes had welled with tears, and Jeff had immediately dropped the subject. He later had promised himself that he’d never suggest anything like that again. 

The place-settings were still beautiful, however, so up went the camera.

CLICK!

There was a soft whrrr as the camera printed the picture. Jeff took it out, then flapped it about in the air in front of him. He slipped it in his pocket to let it develop. Then he went on to the next room. 

He proceeded to take pictures all through the house. He had decided that they might need them if they ever had to sell the house. He hoped they never would, but his best friend Mark’s parents had gotten divorced, and then he had moved two months later. Jeff wasn’t sure if it was different when a parent died instead, but thought it would be polite to be prepared. He passed through the house like a phantom, going room-to-room. He finished upstairs in the bathroom, where the faint smell of vanilla hovered in the air.

“All done,” he said to himself.

But that wasn’t true, and he knew it. He still needed to photograph his bedroom. He turned and exited the bathroom, then took the few steps down the hall toward his door. The walls were a pale brown, and he imagined himself a gunslinger on some dusty mesa, preparing to face his foe.

Jeff opened his bedroom door and stepped inside. There was a soft whining sound as it swung shut behind him.

“Hello again, Jeffrey,” said a voice. It had a wheezing, foppish quality to it. “Have you come to take my picture again? That last one was really good, but I think we can get a better one with you and me in it.”

“No,” said Jeff, “I’m just taking a picture of my bedroom for something I’m working on. Then I’ll be done taking pictures for today.”

“That makes me quite sad,” replied the voice, heavy with sorrow. “I told all of my friends that I would bring back a picture of me and my new friend Jeffrey.”

“Mom says she doesn’t want me taking any more pictures of strangers without her around.”

“Strangers?!” cried the voice. “Well, I suppose I can see why you feel that way. After all, I know your name, but you don’t know mine. I’m happy to introduce myself if you’d like, but I need you to look at me. You don’t look at me when we talk, and that makes me very sad.”

Jeff whispered something.

“What’s that?” asked the voice. “I’m sorry, Jeffrey, but I can’t hear you when you whisper. You’ll need to speak up.”

“You scare me, okay?” 

“Oh . . . I’m sorry. I know I’m not the most handsome guy around, but I was told a long time ago by my mother that it was what’s on the inside that counts. Didn’t your mother ever tell you the same thing?”

“Yes,” admitted Jeff.

“I would really appreciate it if you said sorry.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jeff.

“Thank you,” said the voice. “I humbly accept your apology.” There was a sound then–an unfurling sound, as if of wings. “Now Jeffrey, why don’t you look at me? You’ve apologized, so I think the best thing you could do now is look at me so I can properly introduce myself. You weren’t even looking through the viewfinder when you took the last picture!”

Without warning, Jeff felt his legs begin to turn towards the sound. He did not know if his brain had betrayed him, or if the thing in the corner was exerting some kind of malevolent force against him. He considered trying to make a break for the door, crying for his mother, or even just hiding under the bed. In the end, he did none of these things because he was very scared. When one is frightened, they are liable to do things that seem illogical to any outsider. 

Jeff’s legs thus continued to turn, until at last he got a good look at who the voice belonged to.

It had the aspect of a man, but was far too tall, its back arced where it met the ceiling. It had a great black cloak which fell behind it, and wore a pitch-black bowler hat. Its face leered from under the hat, a china-white visage that seemed fractured and patchwork. Torn across its face was a great sideways smile, which floated about its brittle skin like scum on the surface of a pond. Inside the cloak were a number of knick-knacks and ornaments, the kinds of small collectible that could be found at any antique store or in your grandmother’s curio cabinet. Some looked very old, while others shone brightly. It glittered and jangled as it moved.

“I,” said the voice proudly, its owner descending into a deep bow, “am the Bric-a-Brac Man.” It smiled, and the smile crawled up next to its eyebrows. “I would very much like to take a picture with you now, Jeffrey.”

And so Jeff’s legs began to pick themselves up, then place themselves down. Step by step, he drew closer to the nightmare in the corner. The Bric-a-Brac Man’s face loomed over him. Then he was there, and the creature bent down so that it was at the same height as him. One arm curled over his shoulder, drawing him closer. It felt stiff and cold. There was the faint smell of oranges and chocolate. 

“What do you think, Jeffrey?” asked the Bric-a-Brac Man. “Do you want to take a selfie?”

Jeff nodded, too scared to speak.

“I’ll take it!” cried the Bric-a-Brac Man. “I think I’ve got a longer reach.” He plucked the camera from Jeff’s trembling hands, then reached his arm out impossibly far, until it almost touched the ceiling. He faced the camera back towards them, one crooked white finger on the shutter.

“Now,” whined the Bric-a-Brac Man, “make sure you smile real good for me, okay? I want this to be a great picture! Say wheeeeeeee!” 

Wheeeee!” moaned Jeff.

Click!

The room was briefly illuminated by a flash, and then it was quiet. There was a soft thudding sound as the camera fell to the floor, then a papery whisper as the photo printed. It would not be discovered for another thirty-eight minutes, when Leanne would come to fetch Jeff for dinner. She would first linger in the doorway, calling out to see if he had decided to play hide-and-seek. Then she would turn on the light, for day had faded to dusk. She would check under the bed, and then in the closet. Only then would she find the camera where it had fallen. From there, she would find the picture. 

The picture, which would be her first step on the path to insanity, showed a man in a black hat with a harlequin face, a smile on his nose, and his eyes locked firmly on the boy in his arms. That boy was Jeff, who stared at the camera with a tetanus grin and tears filling his eyes.

Leanne screamed until her throat began to bleed.

Part One of Twelve

#2 – Istapparhund

The first bite of the icy wind gnawed at Drew’s cheek as he stepped out of the hotel into the bluing light. It felt as though the sun had only just risen. His watch told him that it was 2:30 in Spegeldalen, but he wouldn’t have known it by the way the sun hovered at the rim of the world. Brilliant streaks of orange lit out across the snow. The rays bore no heat with them, and now the dark sought to steal away what little comfort the light offered.

Drew pulled the packet of cigarettes out of his parka’s pocket, cupping his hand against the wind to light it. He flicked the match into the snow, then stepped around the corner of the building to the lee side, somewhat sheltered from the worst of the wind. Something howled in the distance. What kind of person would allow a dog to be out on a day like today? He dragged on the cigarette and shook his head. Probably the same kind of people that thought it’d be fun to set up a resort in the middle of fucking nowhere. He wiped his nose to prevent a pendulous string of snot from freezing. He supposed that the resort management wasn’t entirely to blame for him being here. Surely Marlene shared some of the responsibility, given that she had had the idea to come to Sweden instead of Ibiza for their winter holiday.

Baby, it’ll be so much fun! Look at the brochure. They have ice-skating trails through the forest, skiing, dog-sledding . . . private hot tubs in all the rooms. Drew could still hear the cadence of her voice as she listed this last point. He had almost been insulted when she had mentioned it; after all, it wasn’t his fault that it had been so long. Four months, when last Drew had counted. Long enough that it was painful, but not so long that it was time to call a lawyer.

Marlene had seemed genuinely excited, though, and so with that (and the other thing) in mind, Drew had dutifully nodded his head and agreed to the trip. Five weeks later, they had flown from London to Stockholm before climbing aboard a bus for a seven-hour drive north. When they had finally disembarked, it had been to a small bus station two miles from the chalet. One final taxi ride had brought them to their destination, the Spegeldalen Hotel, Resort, and Spa. 

The place itself was beautiful, of course. Marlene always had an eye for luxury. Drew hadn’t expected anything less, which was half the reason he had allowed her to book the trip in the first place. Still, the promise of comfort hadn’t stopped him from gasping with shock when he had stepped off the bus and into the cold dark. Man wasn’t meant to live in places like this, he figured, and he was prepared to stand by that if Marlene tried to fight him on it. He tried getting her attention during the taxi ride, but she had ignored him in favour of talking to the driver. Once they had arrived at the hotel, she’d immediately launched into conversation with the receptionist. 

Drew sighed and distracted himself by looking around the lobby. It was some kind of hyper-modern style, all white lines and smooth curves. Fires leaped and flickered in black fireplaces inset in the walls, lending the room a cozy feel, despite the stark architecture. Great golden lights hung above him. A restaurant at the other end of the room hummed with the bustle of other visitors, tired-looking folks who smiled and laughed with one another.

Maybe this isn’t so bad, Drew had thought. Maybe I should just put up with the cold. Making a decision, he turned back towards the desk and went to follow his wife.

Thinking back on it now, Drew wished he had said something then. It would have been easier. But nothing had gone quite as he intended; Marlene was an active woman who wanted to be out in the snow, skiing or skating. Drew would rather have stayed in the hotel room, getting drunk and sitting in the Jacuzzi. Maybe later he would have gone to the spa for a massage, depending on the prices. But he had no interest in going out in the snow any more than he had to, and he made sure that Marlene knew about it. She might have big plans for outdoor activities, but he would find his own path. He was sure that she’d come along in time. 

Drew shivered. The sun was past the horizon now, the cigarette nearly finished. He decided to have another in order to justify his being out there. He was in the middle of removing the packet when he was interrupted by a powerful gust of wind.  His hood was ripped off his head, the packet sent careening into the dark.

“Fuck!” he cried, chasing after it. There were no-smoking signs all over the resort. Who knew if they even had cigarettes for sale? He wasn’t sure if he’d ever seen a Swede smoking. His feet sank into the deep snow up to his calf. Drew could see a thin trail where the packet had skipped across the snow like a rock over a pond. It disappeared into the night. Howling could be heard again, a piercing cry that startled Drew in its proximity. A wolf? No, it has to be a dog. Wolves wouldn’t get that close to civilization. The sound of it was near enough that he reconsidered. Better safe than sorry. He turned to go inside.

The one good thing about the cold, Drew decided, is that it makes you appreciate what it is to be warm. Stepping inside the hotel again was akin to slipping into a hot bath without being wet. He shut the door behind him. The hotel’s hall was quiet, the pale sconces humming softly in their places. Nobody else was around. There were few guests at the resort at all, in fact; whether this was a consequence of the season or the weather, Drew wasn’t sure. All he knew is that it was still too many, for Marlene had done what she always did and befriended the first people that she came across. They were to have dinner that evening with her new friends, Sven and Hanne.

“Better hurry and get into something nice,” chirped Marlene as he entered the room. Drew rolled his eyes privately. She hadn’t even waited for him to take off his boots before barking orders at him. 

“Are you sure we need to go to this? Can’t we just order room service, stay in, watch a movie?”

“Andrew, we came all this way for the sake of a trip, not to watch movies.” She was fiddling with her earrings, looking at him only through the reflection in the mirror. “Sven and Hanne are perfectly lovely people. They said that the restaurant’s herring is out of this world. I want to try the herring. They want to eat it again. It’s no big deal to just go and eat some fish.”

“I don’t like fish that much. Maybe just fish and chips.”

“Then order fish and chips, I don’t care. Order a fucking steak. Whatever you want. Please just do this thing with me.”

“Alright, alright.” In truth, Drew had always planned on saying yes. No, he didn’t particularly want to eat with a couple of strangers, but he also didn’t want to sit in the room alone like a loser. 

“Thank you,” said Marlene. “This’ll be fun, I promise.”

“No problem.”

Once dressed, the couple walked together to the restaurant which Drew had spied during the check-in. Soft music played, some classical piece that Marlene probably knew, but Drew only heard as elevator music. A handsome blond couple stood in front of the maître d’. They smiled and waved to Drew and Marlene.

“Jesus, Mar, I didn’t realize we were having dinner with the Aryan Nation,” whispered Drew. 

“Welcome to Sweden, Drew. Lots of people have blond hair here. It doesn’t make them Nazis.”

“It’s called a joke.”

“I thought jokes were supposed to be funny?”

Drew opened his mouth to reply, but Marlene had already opened her arms for a hug. The woman, Hanne, pulled her close, and then Sven did the European cheek-kiss thing that Drew was still having a difficult time adjusting to. He proffered his hand awkwardly for a handshake with each of them, which they both accepted. 

“Hi, I’m Andrew, but you can call me Drew.”

“So nice to meet you,” said Sven. His accent was soft, his smile wide. “I’m Sven. This is my partner, Hanne.”

She smiled too. So many smiles. “Shall we eat?” she asked. “I’m starving.”

“Yes!” enthused Marlene. “I’m ready to try this herring you’ve been telling me about. I’ve been craving fish ever since I got here.”

Drew raised an eyebrow at this, but said nothing. Back home, Marlene hated fish. She’d even refuse to kiss him if he had eaten fish and chips with his friends until he’d brushed his teeth. Who was this woman?

“What about you?” asked Sven. “Are you ready to taste real Swedish cuisine?”

Drew forced a smile. “I suppose I am,” he said.

To its credit, the restaurant’s food was delicious. Even the herring Marlene had ordered did look good, though Drew wasn’t about to admit it. It was served on a bed of microgreens, with a thin glaze of some kind drizzled over it. He had watched her as she had eaten, only looking away to answer the occasional questions that Sven and Hanne tossed his way, but she never betrayed any sign of a grimace or gag to suggest she wasn’t enjoying her meal. This incensed Drew for reasons he couldn’t pinpoint. More infuriating yet was that the Swedish couple seemed far more interested in Marlene. This was often the case with new people, but Drew found that he could usually tune it out. Not this time.

“So what do you guys do around here when it’s this cold?” he asked.

“Stay inside, mostly,” replied Hanne. “Read books. Play board games. Watch TV. Don’t you do the same?”

Drew opened his mouth to reply, but Marlene got there first. “Drew likes a lot of those things, too, right baby?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I guess. I was kind of hoping to do something more outdoorsy, given that we’re on vacation in a winter wonderland and all.”

This time it was Marlene’s turn to raise her eyebrow. Drew flashed her a grin. Think on that, Mar.

“Have you been skiing yet?” asked Hanne. “The slopes are really nice here. Nothing too crazy after all, we’re still in the relatively low part of the country, but enough to make it worth the trip to the lift. Or maybe skating? Sven and I did the trail through the forest just last week. They maintain it the whole way through, it’s truly spectacular.” 

“I was thinking some snowshoeing. Maybe even tonight, if the weather clears.” Drew had no idea why he’d suggested that. He certainly wasn’t about to do it. Was he that desperate to annoy Marlene?

“Oh no,” said Sven, eyes wide. “You can’t do it tonight.”

Drew just about got up out of his chair to find a pair of snowshoes when Sven said that. “Why not? I bet the stars are beautiful. ”

There was silence for a moment. Then the couple looked at one another. Sven inclined his head towards Hanne, as if to say you go ahead. She nodded, took a long sip of her wine, and then said, “because of the Istapparhund.”

“The what?”

“Ees-topper-hoond?” asked Marlene. “What does that mean?” She reached for her purse, probably for the phrasebook that she’d used to read road signs and billboards on the bus ride up.

“You won’t find it in a book,” said Sven softly. “It’s kind of a local legend.” He looked from Marlene to Drew, then back again. “It’ll sound very silly, but it’s best to abide by these things. We are a superstitious lot in Spegeldalen.”

“But what does it mean?” asked Drew. Against his better intentions, his curiosity was piqued.

Sven looked to Hanne. “Your English is better than mine. How would you translate it?”

Hanne thought for a quick second. “Icicle dog would be the closest translation, I suppose.”

“Icicle dog,” repeated Marlene. “This is a local legend? Like the Loch Ness Monster?”

“Not quite like that,” said Sven. “The Loch Ness Monster, she’s more of a mystery than anything children might be afraid of. Lots of people claim to have seen the Istapparhund. When they talk about it, they don’t talk about it with the kind of excitement or awe you might expect from somebody who saw the Loch Ness Monster.”

“Yes,” said Hanne. “They always seem terrified. Scared out of their wits.”

“By the icicle dog,” said Drew flatly.

“I know it sounds very silly,” said Hanne. “But please take it very seriously. It may seem like a quaint local tradition, but we all are very careful all the same. We stay inside on the coldest nights, because that’s when the Istapparhund hunts. Usually it’s game like rabbits or sometimes bigger animals like a fox. But every once in a while, they find a person. Sadly, it’s most often a child who wanted to play outside or perhaps a homeless person who couldn’t find shelter.” Her voice shrank, barely to a whisper. “There was one last month. I heard the snow was so covered in blood that it had begun to melt before it froze again. They had to dig two feet down to find white.”

“Hanne, please,” said Sven. “There’s no need to trouble them with such things. They are enjoying their vacation.”

“Please, forgive me,” said Hanne. “I’m interested in local myths. That’s actually why we live here; I’m studying folklore at Malmö University, and part of my work concerns Swedish legends as well.”

“Are you telling me that there’s some kind of monster in the woods who kills children and it’s never made the news?” asked Marlene. She said it kindly, but her voice carried a tone of incredulity. 

“Please understand, this is not something that we are proud of. The local authorities put out warnings every winter, when the sun begins to set early. But we don’t advertise it in tourist areas because nobody goes out late anyway. If a death happens, it’s usually blamed on a bear or another homeless person. Tourism is very important to Spegeldalen, and they don’t want anything in the news that might drive people away.”

“This is a joke,” muttered Drew. Marlene is trying to get back at me somehow for smoking on the trip. She knew I would want to go outside before bed for another. She didn’t want me coming to bed stinking of smoke, so she cooked up this scheme with her new friends to keep me from doing it. Maybe next time, baby. And yet, even as he thought this, some atavistic part of his brain recollected the baying howl that he had heard earlier that evening.

“We know how it sounds,” said Sven. “But please, stay inside at night. If not for our sake, then for yours.”

Marlene opened her mouth, perhaps to ask more questions, but the waiter chose that moment to arrive with the bill. The conversation turned away from the Istapparhund, and each couple prepared to go to their rooms. They separated in the halls leading to opposite wings of the hotel, and Marlene and Drew walked back in a stony silence.

“What the hell was that?” Marlene finally asked.

“What was what?” 

“All that nonsense about snowshoeing. Since when do you want to go outdoors?”

“What can I say?” said Drew. “I was inspired.”

“Inspired to be a dick, maybe.”

“Come on, Mar. You’ve been messing with me just as much. I mean, all that about the ice dog or whatever? Please. You don’t really think I’m that gullible, do you?”

Marlene’s face blanched. “Drew, I really didn’t have anything to do with that. I was as surprised as you were when they brought it up.”

Drew nodded along. “I bet you were, babe. It’s okay, I’m not mad. I think we each need our jokes to remember why we love each other.”

“I’m being serious,” said Marlene. “I didn’t like that story, either. That detail about all the blood? That’s fucked up. Do you really think I could come up with that?”

“Maybe that was Hanne’s contribution, I don’t know. She seems like a natural storyteller.”

“Just don’t go for a smoke before bed, okay? I know you smoked earlier. I really don’t care. Just wait ‘til morning, please.”

“I didn’t smoke earlier.”

“I smelled it on you. It was super obvious, even with your cologne.”

“That was from the fires in the lobby.”

“Those are electric! Are you being deliberately dense?”

“No more than you, love.”

They had reached the room by this point. Marlene slid the key into the lock and then stormed in, kicking her shoes off. She went to the mini-fridge, muttering something under her breath. Drew’s imagination gave him a few ideas as to what that might be, but he didn’t ask. She pulled a short bottle of wine out of the door and then slammed it, glaring at him as she made her way to the bathroom. He then heard the click of the lock and the sound of the bath.

Drew decided he needed a break. He thought about turning on the TV, but watching a bunch of expensive movies with Swedish dubs and English subtitles didn’t appeal to him. He went to the closet and patted his jacket, mostly out of a nagging sense of curiosity. He was on the third pocket when he felt what he had hoped for; he reached inside and withdrew a single sad, flaccid cigarette. Hell yes, he thought. He peeked around the corner to be sure the bathroom door was still closed. The tap was still running, so she’d likely be in there for a while yet. He grabbed his coat and exited the room as quietly as he could.

The chill was almost shocking when he stepped outside, an iciness that seemed to invade parts of him that had never been cold before. The wind bit at the thin places on his body: his nose; his cheeks; his knuckles. It seemed to exist somehow inside his very bones. The little spark of flame on the tip of his match carried all the warmth in the world. He touched it to the tip of the cigarette, turning his body to shelter it from the storm. The orange ember lit his face with a soft and primeval light. 

He had just about finished when he heard the sound of crunching in the snow. He turned to see who was there, assuming it was another guest, but found himself at a loss for words.The tail of the cigarette fell soundlessly from his mouth, the wind whistling into his lungs as his throat clenched and unclenched in a vain attempt to scream.

Before him was a creature not unlike a wolf, except it was entirely unlike a wolf. Its body was composed entirely of translucent aqua-blue ice, sculpted perhaps by some dispassionate god. As the thing shifted and the pale halogen light over the hotel door caught it, Drew realized with another shock of horror that the ice was sharp. Jagged peaks and valleys thrusted out from the creature’s body, a nightmare of geometry, its very eyes two inky coal-black pebbles perched atop shards of glass which pivoted and turned on some unknowable axis. These eyes tracked Drew and he froze, all thought of the cold forgotten. 

I’m not so far from the door, he thought. Not so far at all. He slowly stretched his arm out–

–And was interrupted by an ear-splitting, keening howl, one which shook him to his core, turning his bones into water. The creature had split its jaw to the sky as it cried, and Drew had caught a glimpse of its teeth, rows and rows of squat icicles, inlaid upon one another like shark’s teeth. He felt a trickle of warmth down his leg, but it barely registered in his mind. Making a decision, he sprang into action, grabbing the door handle with all of his might, fumbling in his pocket for the key.

Two seconds later, he realized that he had left the key in the room.

Five seconds after that, a wall of pain unlike any he’d ever known hit his back. He was suddenly in the snow, his cheek shrieking as it was pressed and tossed against the powder. He felt strangely disconnected from his body. The light above began to turn dull and fade, white to grey to black.

As the Istapparhund began to feed, Drew’s last thought was the annoying certainty that Marlene had been right.

“Survivor Song” and the Love at the Core of Male Friendship

Courtesy of HarperCollins.com

“We will not intrude on Luis here, not for much longer. His past, particularly his regrets and recriminations, belong to him. We know enough and we will never know enough to understand what he will do next.”

Last year, I read Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song. I consider Tremblay one of the best horror writers working now, but it is not a particularly frightening part of his latest novel that I choose to write about today. Instead, I want to take a look at a part that I fear most readers might glance past; a literal interlude in the story of the two desperate women making their way across a New England town ravaged by a super-rabies virus.

I was turned on to Tremblay by Stephen King’s Twitter recommendation of A Head Full of Ghosts, which remains one of the most frightening novels I’ve ever read. Following this, I read through Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, and The Cabin at the End of the World, both of which might be more properly described as thriller than horror. With that in mind, I was excited to hear of the release of Survivor Song, which marks a return to novel-length horror for Tremblay. I was perhaps a little trepidatious though; unlike the horrors in A Head Full of Ghosts, which deals primarily with the question of whether a young girl is possessed or deeply mentally ill, Survivor Song’s horrors are much more personal for me.

In Survivor Song, a mutant strain of the rabies virus begins to spread rapidly through small-town Massachusetts. For those who aren’t aware, rabies in its current form is already an incredibly horrific disease. Once contracted, failure to receive a vaccine will result in a virtual one-hundred percent chance of dying horribly. There are exceptions, but those number in the single digits. The catch? By the time you know you have it, you’re dead. Once the disease has gone symptomatic, there is no applying a vaccine. There is only the knowledge that you will die, likely within a matter of weeks. You will die terribly, muscles aching, afraid of water, and losing your mind.

From 2017-2019, I lived in an apartment infested with bats. While neither myself, my partner, or my cats were ever harmed, there were multiple instances of bats in the apartment. They entered through holes underneath the radiator, a gap underneath the front door, or simply scratched and squeaked in the ceiling or in the walls. Sometimes my cats would run to the door late at night, and I’d peer through the peephole, seeing the flash of brown-and-black flying erratically around.

Landlords are useless under normal circumstances, of course, but legislation against the killing of bats (which, however I may have felt at the time, I understand), prevented anything other than efforts to remove and exclude them. This situation caused a great deal of anxiety for me, to the point when I still brace myself looking through the peephole at night or feel a rush of panic when one of my cats sniffs around at the base of my apartment door.

Returning to this disease in Survivor Song was therapeutic, in a sense. Seeing people confront this virus and fight for every minute of life they can get helped me recover from my own anxiety. In Survivor Song, it’s a matter of hours, not weeks, before the victims become symptomatic. The unreality of it contextualized my fear.

The book itself concerns the attack of a pregnant woman, Natalie, by a rabid man. Her husband is killed in the assault, and she is bitten. She quickly gets in contact with an old friend, Ramola, a doctor in town. Ramola meets her and ushers her to hospital, hoping to act quickly enough to prevent the virus.

I won’t spoil the rest of course, but much of the book concerns their journey and their friendship. And yet, at the core of the book, there is another friendship. It is covered in fewer pages and is not Tremblay’s focus. But there are sections of the book–interludes–that remind the reader that “this is not a fairy-tale,” even as the pages are decorated in such a way that evoke The Brothers Grimm.

One of these sections follows Luis and Josh, two friends who meet up with Natalie and Ramola midway through the book. They seem thrilled by the violence taking place around them; with mammals of all kinds susceptible to the virus, people are catching rabies from animals as innocuous as passing squirrels, who leap violently toward them, driven mad by the disease.

Luis and Josh clearly have watched The Walking Dead, describing the events as akin to a zombie apocalypse. They are excited for the adventure of a post-apocalyptic world, where society has collapsed and you are forced to make hard choices to survive. Ramola, of course, knows that, while tragic, the events are hardly apocalyptic; a virus that kills within hours is hardly likely to spread very far (conversely, part of the reason our own pandemic is so long-lasting is because it kills relatively infrequently and spreads easily), and as such, containment and protection of the survivors is the next task; not societal collapse.

Luis and Josh recognize that Natalie is hurt though, and so they band with Ramola and Natalie to help them get to help. During the course of their travel, they are attacked. While they are able to fight off their attackers, Josh is bit on the head by a dog. They part ways from Natalie and Ramola then, and this is where the interlude begins.

“You are not supposed to go back, you can’t go back, and if you attempt a return you will be forever lost.”

One thing that I think fiction often has a hard time portraying is male friendship. It exists, of course; there is certainly no shortage of fiction featuring men. But so much of it feels obligated to depict male friendship as this hyper-performative display of machismo, where men talk about what they ate or how much they can bench or who they fought or fucked. Ironically, perhaps, one of the better examples I’ve seen recently is The Sopranos, which I’m watching with my girlfriend currently. I’ve never seen it before, and while the show certainly has a reputation for all of the above, one of the things that has struck us the most is how deeply these characters care for one another. When was the last time you gave your friend a kiss on the cheek when you met up?

What Tremblay understands is that the core of male friendship is love. This is true of any friendship, of course, so this this might seem odd to read. And yet, years of conditioning have taught us to see open admittances of love between men as taboo — whether it might be some latent homophobia or simply cultural norms that have taught men to conceal their feelings, the end result is the same. How many times did Chandler and Joey embrace on Friends, only to awkwardly realize what they were doing, then separate to the hooting and hawing of the audience?

Josh has been bit on the head. It is a death sentence. Even if he had a vaccine, which he doesn’t, it’s far too late. Rabies is a virus that needs to reach the brain. It was delivered almost directly to it. Josh is a dead man riding a bicycle.

Still, he and Luis ride on.

Josh’s riding is erratic. He weaves and abruptly jerks his bike at hard angles when the road is clear. He shouts at shadows and he shouts at trees. He lists until Luis calls out his name, then he lists some more. Luis knows Josh will not be Josh for much longer. Perhaps he already isn’t Josh, or the new non-Josh is growing, metastasizing, laying claim. Regardless, Luis will follow Josh and follow him until he cannot lead anymore.

We know how this story ends. As Tremblay reminds us, this is not a fairy-tale. But, even as he insists it is a song, the story takes on aspects of fairy-tale. Luis and Josh leave the road, travelling into the woods. Perhaps emulating Michonne in The Walking Dead, Luis ties up Josh on a lead, wrapping a bandanna around his dying friend’s mouth to prevent him from biting. His friend’s mind is not yet gone, and so Josh acquiesces to this. They walk together through the woods, unable to ride any further. From the trees emerge all manner of mammals, driven mad by the virus; squirrels and rabbits and bats and bigger animals still, all homing in on the two friends.

Courtesy of Image Comics.

Even though his friend has already been bit, and even though he is already doomed to die, Luis will not let them have him. He wields the makeshift staff he carries like a trained warrior, snapping away at legions of creatures which swarm them.

“The teens more than endure the tiny terrors, they revel as though there never was and never will be a sweeter time, a greater moment. If not an apotheosis, this is them at their best, and they laugh and they boast and they shout and they live and they know there is no future.”

There is a surreality to this part. The thought of suburban teens expertly wielding a staff to fight off hordes of rabid animals is almost silly when you envision it. But Tremblay makes it work. This is not a fairy-tale, he reminds us. This is a song. It has no happy ending.

Surreality can only be stretched so far. The animals soon grow to be too much. They overwhelm Luis, and Josh pushes him to the ground. He shields his friend with his body, giving him everything that he has left. The bats rip and tear and bite and yet he does not leave his friend.

When at last it is over, they rise and come to a clearing. A rock with a split in it sits at its centre, which fans of Tremblay might recognize. It is here that the inevitable happens.

“Josh stops walking. He turns, and he has turned. This is the reveal of Zombie Josh, the zombie teen wth red coyote eyes, lips a ragged drawn curtain, foam and saliva faulting from his gagged mouth. Luis cannot help but stare at his friend’s teeth, as though he’d never really seen them before, seen them for what they can be. Hands still tied together, Zombie Josh rushes at Luis. Thus begins a dance that will last into the night. Luis will not hurt Zombie Josh, even though he’’s seen all the movies and knows all the rules. Instead, he will duck and he will dodge and he will sidestep and he will run.”

Luis refuses to hurt Josh, but he also refuses to leave him. They dance like this until the virus in Josh’s head rages through him, removing his ability to fight and bite. Josh is tired, and sits back against the rock. He no longer is conscious. His body is barely functioning. It is here that he will die.

And what does Luis do? What happens next is something I’ve never experienced in any kind of zombie or zombie-adjacent fiction. It is utterly novel and incredibly perfect and impossibly tragic. I will not summarize it, for it deserves to be read:

“Luis slips his hands under Josh’s head and ties the gag. The sopping wet bandanna slides easily out of his slack mouth. . . Luis rolls up his right sleeve.  . . Placing a thumb on Josh’s chin, Luis pulls down the lower jaw, opening the mouth. He takes the thumb away. Josh’s face and body tremors, but he doesn’t wake and his mouth stays open. Luis places the soft underside of his forearm into Josh’s mouth, the inside of which is as hot and damp as a sauna. Luis positions his left palm under Josh’s chin and pushes, closing the mouth, forcing his friend’s teeth against his skin. It hurts, but he doesn’t know if the teeth have broken through yet. He pushes harder and Josh convulses, perhaps because the body’s main airway is being blocked. There is still a spark of life within the engine. His jaws contract once, and hard.”

Suicide in post-apocalyptic fiction is nothing new, and it’s true that this is a suicide of sorts. And yet, it doesn’t read that way. It reads as an act of love; the desire from one friend to another to not let him travel into the dark alone. Instead of leaving his friend, or facing the now-clichéd moment of agony as he’s forced to kill his former friend, Luis chooses something different. His choice is made all the more powerful by the fact he cannot let himself be bit; he has to force the empty vessel of his friend to do it. It is his friend who sends him on his way.

Tremblay understands horror, because he understands what scares us. Certainly Survivor Song scared me in a way that most horror doesn’t, reminding me of some of the darkest moments in my own life. But Tremblay also understands that horror is not horror when there is no humanity. How many people, realistically, are afraid when Jason Voorhees machetes another interchangeable horny teen? We don’t root for the teen. We root for Jason. We want to see what he does. Like any work of art, the best horror compels the audience to care. If we care about art, then we can be moved, whether it is to tears or to screams.

It is this same gift that allows Tremblay to capture the love at the heart of male friendship. It is something that I wish more writers understood. We care about Luis and Josh because we’ve all been the stupid kid, wondering how we’d do in the zombie apocalypse. But more than that, we know what it is to love our friends.