Adrienne dies on a Sunday evening. In her tiny flat in Islington, a Northeastern neighborhood of London, she perishes alone. Across from her, the small box television flashes light into the dark living room. Flickers of red and blue and gray sweep across the still curves of her face as her body shifts internally. Her heart brakes, her muscles fall slack. Beneath the surface of pale freckled skin, Adrienne’s body ceases to live. She is dead by six p.m.
The screen across the room blinks silent news stories. BBC is covering reports of an outbreak that has affected St. George’s Hospital. Reporters announce that over a hundred people have contracted a new illness, nearly all of them resulting in fatalities. They do not list symptoms, nor do they name the disease. They do not announce whether the infection is spreading or not, but the tickers and newscasters all hint at the same advice as it permeates the dark room: Get out.
James had already booked his train ticket to Scotland by the time the Mayor of London released his warning on Sunday afternoon. The rumors and sensationalized stories had been circulating for days.
James now folds his clothes as he stands over the suitcase on his bed that splays open like a clamshell. The sun has begun to sink like a weighted anchor behind the buildings of his neighborhood and James knows it has probably cast a net of colors across the river on the other side of town. The sky does not care that the city has begun to fill with tension. It does not care about the piercing tone of the alert that now permeates across the radio waves, shouting with urgency.
James stops moving and looks at the radio on his nightstand. The word, “evacuation,” spills out through the static and he turns his head slightly to peer out the small window. Gazing through the square frame, he half expects a slew of people to dart past, to fill the sidewalks and herd themselves out of the city. Maybe other people presume this. Maybe other people feel as James does—feel the rich air of disbelief, the doubt that any of this could be real. Surely people’s bodies are not returning from the dead. Surely, people are not cannibalizing one another. Surely, this is a hoax.
Adrienne wakes out of a semicolon. The kind of complete and lovely death that leaves a person intact and permanent—leaves a person as the beautiful black center of the period ending a sentence—that death is not for her. Her sentence is still being written, still trudging on when she opens her eyes. Her muscles tingle like they have been asleep for days. She is aware of how tightly her skin stretches across the bones, how it wraps around her like cellophane. She has never felt so wrapped in herself before.
When she tries to move, the nerves that run down to her limbs feel frayed, rusted. The signals don’t seem to fire correctly and her motions emerge half-formed, like a sleepwalk. She rises shakily from the couch.
James walks with his duffle bag lashed across his left shoulder. The mayor’s latest alert—the third of the day—has laced London with anxiety. James moves briskly in the gathered darkness towards the Edgware Road Tube station. The people beside him on the sidewalk match his pace, everyone toting bags of luggage. No one speaks. No one looks at one another, everyone afraid they might mirror their own sprouting panic.
Paper flyers cover the entrance to the Underground, stating that the normal Transport for London hours will be extended. The Sunday trains will continue on all lines through the night. Before he moves towards the stairwell, James glances at his phone, hoping to see a message from Adrienne. His bright screen shows nothing but the time: 20:43. Nearly nine o’clock.
Adrienne knows to move. She moves as soon as her limbs gather balance, sawing through the quiet night in slow rickety shambles. She marches slowly, scraping her heavy feet across the carpet and faux hardwood. She propels her rusted body out of the flat and into the elevator of the apartment building. Down two floors, down through the nighttime stillness, and into the city air. She shambles for years it seemed, across sidewalks and cobblestones, over grass patches in the nearby park. She heaves herself across empty streets and through parking lots, moving out of instinct rather than desire. She moves because she knows to. Time blends and dissipates, the evening crumbles into dark morning, and with every jerk of a step, she thinks of food.
Within twenty-four hours, London has shifted from restlessness into an eerie calm. Underground, the Tubes still run on schedule and carry less than one person per car. The polite request for passengers to “Please mind the gap” continues to echo through empty stations. The motionless stairwells and hallways hum with the vibrations of the trains that shuttle through.
In the damp summer air above-ground, black taxis sit parked in arbitrary postures on the sides of streets. Sidewalks carry the meek footsteps of the few citizens who elected to stay—to defy the warnings and the mayor’s urge to flee the city. The rest of the population had piled into cars together, flooded the three airports, crowded into trains, and sat in laps and aisles in order to escape as quickly as possible. The fear had been well broadcasted. The fear had been efficient.
In an old stone farmhouse outside of Aberdeen, Scotland, James stares into the brightness of his phone’s screen. The cell signal at his parents’ home on the hillside cannot always be relied upon, but he should have heard from her by now. Yesterday’s train ride took over seven hours from Kings Cross Station. He kept his phone set to vibrate and rested it on his thigh for the duration of the trip.
Saturday, April 19
James MccCarron 16:47
Hey, I’m heading to my parents’ place tomorrow night…come with me so you can get out of the city.
Sunday, April 20
James MccCarron 15:15
Okay.. catching the 21:10 train from KC. Come with me. Mayor says everyone needs to leave.
James MccCarron 21:32
Hey on train. Text me ASAP.
James MccCarron 22:51
Ad, I haven’t heard from you...you ok?
James MccCarron 00:04
Adrienne please text me back so I know you’re ok.
James sits now at the large wooden table in the center of the kitchen and faces the doorway. He can hear his mother bustling about upstairs. The red iron AGA oven against the wall births the scent of sage and baking poultry. Outside, through the square window above the sink, the sky loses light and bathes the room in hues of orange and grey. He expects his father home anytime.
James sets the phone down and stares into the burgundy pattern of the Oriental rug beneath the table. He has been creating scenarios in his mind about why Adrienne has not contacted him, but now he thinks that perhaps she is staying true to her word. A week ago, she told him she needed space to move on. A week ago, they huddled together in her apartment and cried their goodbyes to one another. A week ago, James walked away from their relationship, convinced that Adrienne couldn’t love him properly—convinced that she was too busy for him, too focused on her MBA program, too out of tune with him.
James closes his eyes and leans back in the chair. He concentrates on the blanket of heat that spreads across the kitchen. Keeping his eyelids gently shut, he reaches out with his right hand and powers off his phone.
Adrienne feels hunger in a new way. Her belly no longer trembles or moans. Her stomach does not shift and gurgle and sigh. Instead, her entire torso burns. Her chest, ribcage, middle, and hips scream like a sunburn from the inside out. The muscles cry for relief.
Adrienne does not have an awareness of where her limbs have led her. She has passed pubs and apartment buildings that pull lightly at her attention—that pull like a breeze on the rogue thread of an afghan—but she does not understand familiarity. She does not understand that she has been here before. The tug is not enough to stir a memory.
Adrienne cannot comprehend how eerie the city looks emptied out. London is a shell of itself without its citizens. When she reaches the Liverpool Street Station, her footsteps echo loudly through the vacant building. The curved ceiling hangs above her like the hull of a large glass ship. The small square shops that line the edges of the building sit still and patient; the cool metal tracks stay hushed. Adrienne moves through in oblivion. She moves and thinks of food.
James and his parents sit together in the small den. The wooden door shuts out the chill from the drafty house and a fire snaps and dances in the hearth. The three of them watch the television in wordlessness.
James once more has his phone switched on and rested on his thigh. He couldn’t tolerate the detachment for even an hour—couldn’t handle the device’s lifeless presence in the house. He even tried to leave it in another room—to bury it beneath an assortment of papers on his father’s desk, but he powered it back up after exactly forty-seven minutes. He now hungrily opens and reopens his social media applications. He cycles through each one of his profiles to ensure Adrienne has not tried to contact him. The fixation grabs at something magnetic within him.
James watches the shots of London skip across the television screen as journalists film from a helicopter above the city. A man’s voice talks over the footage and explains that there are still crowds of people who have refused to vacate. These rebelling citizens are reportedly carrying on with their usual business, acting as though nothing has happened. These people are largely continuing to go to work as usual, resisting to believe that a rare outbreak and call to action has occurred.
James’ eyes cease to blink. He has suddenly pictured Adrienne in her flat, ignoring the evacuation warnings and news stories and hysteria. He pictures her in front of her small stove top, her strawberry hair in a ponytail as she fries two eggs for dinner and sings along to Etta James’ Greatest Hits.
The journalist’s voice continues. Experts assert that people have a kind of reflex denial that kicks in amidst highly dramatic circumstances and convinces them that these situations are not their reality. While dangerous in some instances, this reflex denial can be helpful in coping with life on a daily basis. It allows people to get up every day and carry on normal life when, deep inside, they inherently know that some tragedy could occur at any moment.
James pictures Adrienne posting photos to Instagram and messaging her friends back in the States. He pictures her disregarding his text messages to prove a point. Then he imagines the outbreak permeating her neighborhood. He pictures it knocking on her door.
Adrienne shambles into a small park near the train station, moving out of instinct. She smells the boy before she sees him.
The blonde boy sits on a bench and types onto the screen of his phone. His parents chose to stay behind, but because there is no school he must pass his time in the park. White headphones stretch like threads of cobwebs from the boy’s palm to his ears and his head bobs slightly to silent beats.
Adrienne views the back of him with obsidian eyes. She stands there in what feels like a prayer—the boy before her like a vision on an altar. She can feel the radiation of him. Then her body jolts. Her legs like wooden pegs move quicker and her chest cavity heaves in and out like the forced dance of a puppet. This new and famished body of hers is onstage now and performing. It inches closer while the boy sits unaware and engrossed in his music.
Invisible strings draw her arms up as she hovers above him. Swiftly, her hands grip his head, fingertips like naked spider legs sink into his shaggy hair and her open mouth swoops down to his neck to squeeze the muscle sharply until blood appears. She bites into the beautiful warm rind of the boy and blood sweeps down his left side. A scream erupts from his throat and cuts through the quiet city courtyard. He continues to scream as whole morsels of him are wrenched from his body and chewed by the trembling figure above him. He shrieks and flails while his arteries are bitten into and his blood leaves him and every last thought marches with him towards death. Finally his thoughts abandon him with death. They leave him cold and drained of color on the park bench while Adrienne swallows his flesh and finds relief.
James’ parents have turned down the volume on the television set and the three of them continue to sit in silence in the small den. His parents sit on opposite sides of a deep leather couch with crossword puzzles in their laps, while James sits in a faded armchair with a book he can barely read. He plucked the book—a Fitzgerald he had never heard of—from a shelf in the hallway upstairs. The bent cover in his hands has discolored over the years, but the weight of it roots him somehow even though he cannot concentrate. He scans the same sentence again and again. Banish the thought. Why don’t you tell me that ‘if the girl had been worth having she’d have waited for you’? No, sir, the girl really worth having won’t wait for anybody.
James’ mind snaps into place like the four-sided missing piece in the center of a puzzle. His mind slaps down the tiny cardboard realization that he has heard this line. He and Adrienne had been sitting in a pub near her flat. The memory opens up clearly in his head and he sees the dim sconces on the wall that painted shadows across the black velvet wallpaper behind her. She sipped the pink foam of her favorite strawberry beer and spoke about the book she’d just finished. James rolled his eyes at her, took a deep draw of his ale, and watched her remove the hardback book from her purse and open it right at the bar table. She smirked and read aloud in her subtle New York accent the very quote that James has been trying to digest for ten minutes now.
He looks up from the book. He watches the television again.
Adrienne chews at the dead boy’s body until she has consumed his entire left shoulder. A veil of glistening ruby liquid covers her mouth and chin and she takes a final bite. The skin of her face scrunches; the meat has spoiled. The boy’s heart had finally surrendered and death has tainted the remainder of his flesh. She backs away from his corpse.
With her hunger mildly satiated, Adrienne feels an awareness waft through her. She becomes aware of an absence. Like her head had once been a cup filled to the brim, but has since been knocked over. The contents have poured out—have spread somewhere like countless grains of sand across a slick floor. She cannot decipher what those contents were, but she knows they are missing. She knows there had been stories once, stories that occupied her. Hundreds and hundreds of stories. Maybe they were erased. Maybe they are hidden. Maybe they scattered into corners and will never be recovered.
James feels helpless. He paces the carpeted floor of his old bedroom. His mother has given up checking in on him because he has become a storm now—he has gathered speed, his gales have picked up, he rages through the Scottish night. His phone sits plugged into the small corner outlet and he stares at the white wire like an umbilical cord, wanting nothing more than to sever it. He thinks back to the previous week—to the fight he had with Adrienne.
I don’t have any more to give, she’d exclaimed. I don’t know what you want from me.
I just want to be a priority, he replied. I just wish you’d open up to me. Why can’t you open up to me?
I don’t know if we belong together. I don’t think I can do this anymore. We keep fighting. It’s getting worse.
The dim bedside lamp lights his pale, angular face and James imagines himself screaming. He pictures what it would feel like to open his throat and release the pressure from his lungs. He wants to squeeze the air out like an accordion and let the sound whip out into pitched notes and squalls. Instead, he gulps. He lies down on the bed. He stares at the wall.
Adrienne swallows down the taste of metal. She leaves the dead boy on the bench, whole except for his left side, which is mauled and bloody. She begins to move again as her insides churn with her meal. But then an impromptu memory leaks into her and she pauses in the middle of the side street next to the park. Her darkened eyes see nothing in front of her—only the scene that plays out in her mind.
A dark haired man sits beside her in a dim stairwell. His long pale body is folded tightly as he matches her posture on the step, a somber look coloring his denim eyes.
I don’t know, Adi, he breathes. I don’t feel like a priority to you.
Adrienne watches herself sigh, her face masked in disappointment. She watches herself look at the man beside her. James. It’s James she’s remembering. It’s James and their relationship that doesn’t quite seem to fit.
I gave you a night though, she exclaims. I did all of my assignments yesterday so that we could have night together. I’m trying.
James exhales with irritation. Adrienne sees the trajectory of the conversation. She remembers the circles they danced around all that night as they sat on the steps and talked, occasionally standing and arguing fervently. She remembers the hopelessness that pulsed through her entire body—the depth of understanding as she realized they were reaching the end.
James lies in bed, his phone burning into his palm. He stares at the ceiling and listens to the plastic clock on the wall tick fiercely. The old house groans and sighs around him as the wind gathers energy outside. He listens to the loud silence; he knows he won’t be sleeping for a while.
He tells himself he’s overreacting. He tells himself that Adrienne isn’t right for him and that he needs to stop worrying about her. He tells himself she has intentionally not contacted him—that she’s moved on. He tells himself it’s over.
He tells himself it’s not over. He tells himself that even in her stubbornness, she would’ve let him know she was okay in a state of national emergency. He tells himself something is wrong.
He tells himself he loves her. He tells himself the breakup was his fault. He tells himself he should never have let her go. He tells himself he needs to tell her this.
Adrienne moves out of her memory as her throat tingles from the last bite of the boy. His blood has dried around her mouth and her lips stick together. Her throat feels thick.
Suddenly Adrienne remembers dying. She remembers the hot saliva that coated her mouth as she sat on her couch. She remembers the itch in her fingertips as she held her phone out in front of her, her thumb hovering above the Call button and tingling with the anticipation of James’ voice on the other end. Her body burned, her left shoulder throbbed from the bite she had barely noticed earlier. Her bones cringed. The infection spread. And then it faded.
She remembers the exhaustion that filled her then, poured over her like hot water. She could do nothing but yield to the weight of it, surrender to the cylinder of heavy heat that forced her down into death like she was a delicate tea bag, all paper and string. Her phone fell to the ground. Her organs shut down. She steeped in death before it seized her back up again. It shook her out. Adrienne resurfaced.
In sleep, James dreams of London. He dreams of returning, of a train that could take him back to find her. He needs a new ending. He needs her to know that the fear and the new stories and the absence had affected him. He feels differently. He no longer needs things from her. He no longer wants her to give up her studies, her volunteer work, her running. James wants to fix things.
He walks through the quiet city, certain that some unnamable force will lead him to her. He pictures her barricaded in her flat, or perhaps out scavenging empty stores for rations. She is a survivor. He knows he will find her alive.
Adrienne can’t be sure how long she has trudged the streets after eating. The sun has come and gone. She heard familiar shuffles and scrapes during the darkness. More like her. More shambling. More hunger.
It does not take long for her body to quake with hunger again. She burns with it. The slow memories that had seeped into her empty mind have dissipated once more. Only food matters again.
It is Wednesday and James does not tell his parents what he’s doing. He simply loads his duffle bag into the back of the vehicle and climbs in. He leaves his phone tucked in the pocket of his bag, switched off. He drives South. He drives for ten hours.
Adrienne dines on a woman. She was standing in front of a shelf in a Tesco, holding a plastic basket when Adrienne bit down. Now it is her grip that holds the woman in place. The woman grabs at the shelves as she screams, her fingertips knocking bags of biscuits and sweets down to the floor. She tries to swing the basket at Adrienne, but as blood pours from her arm and neck, the woman loses strength. Adrienne tears her skin off in slow pulls as the woman raises her arms again and again in resistance. She does not give up until she’s dead.
Adrienne drops the woman as soon as she stills. She steps back, awaiting another flush of memory. Soon, it is upon her like a drugged haze. She sees herself in the airport with a trolley that holds her two large suitcases. She grips her American passport as she steers the cart towards the exit. She hasn’t started work on her Masters yet, she hasn’t secured an internship yet, she hasn’t picked up marathon training through Hyde park, hasn’t been assigned to the social media trafficking at her job, hasn’t been given a new smart phone to keep on her person, hasn’t moved from a large bustling house into a one-bedroom flat, hasn’t started volunteering, hasn’t started research on her dissertation, hasn’t met James. She hasn’t done anything yet but set foot on United Kingdom soil.
As Adrienne sees this version of herself—this curious and zealous American ready for anything—she feels a stirring in her dead body. It’s almost an emotion. It’s almost remorse. It’s almost something.
James is uncertain how he actually finds her. Perhaps it’s because the city is empty. Perhaps it’s because she’s still in her neighborhood. But when James sees Adrienne, he notices the patches of blood that pepper her body and coat her mouth. He notices the staleness of her hair and the odd chalky color of her. He sees where her skin hangs loosely, the deep shadows that line the sockets of her eyes, and the color of her eyes themselves. Her irises have disappeared, leaving her with black half-spheres that glare out into nothing. She glares out at him.
Adrienne jolts at the sight of him. Instinct propels her, quickens her legs, and increases her pace. He smells of food—of relief. Her body jolts towards him without recognition and James watches her approach. A realization covers him like a tarp: she doesn’t know him.
He feels suffocated by this. His legs feel paralyzed. As she advances, James tells Adrienne how sorry he is, shouting at her in the street. I shouldn’t have said those horrible things about you being closed off. I shouldn’t have said you needed to sacrifice for me. She blinks at him, her pale eyelids floating smoothly over the glossy black orbs. James thinks about running, but he doesn’t fully believe she is out to attack him. He doesn’t believe he is actually awake, or that he and Adrienne will not be reunited. He doesn’t believe he is staring at the corpse of his ex-girlfriend.
Maybe this is what death feels like too.
Maybe people are not convinced they are going to die until they do. Maybe people don’t feel they are capable of death. Perhaps this is why death feels like such a loss. It’s a mind game, James realizes. Mortality is a mind game.
When Adrienne bites into him, he does not move. He does not run. He watches his blood flee his body. It no longer wants any part of him. It hurries away. He watches Adrienne’s familiar fingertips grip his arm; her familiar lips shield her teeth as they tear into skin. He waits to wake up.
Adrienne drops the figure as soon as the life has left it. She knows another memory approaches and when it fills her, she tilts her head towards the cadaver at her feet. James. She realizes it’s James she’s looking at.
The memory fades more quickly than the rest and Adrienne stands in place and watches the stagnant face of her ex-boyfriend. She watches his blue eyes that gaze unflinchingly into nothing. She watches his breathless body and suddenly senses what is happening to it. She is aware of she’s done and what will ensue. Very quickly—almost imperceptibly—images of her and James stream through her head like a film projector. Flashes of fuzzy memories and moments when they were alive converge and cascade in just a few instances before they seal up and leave Adrienne feeling empty once more.
She gazes into the dense London morning before she glances one last time at the fallen figure at her feet. She blinks her black eyes and shambles away from him.
James wakes out of a semicolon. His fate does not end with a period, with an exclamation, with a question mark. His mortality moves him forward—propels him through the city streets with the others like him. They hobble past one another, radiating hunger. In hunger, they follow their legs. In hunger, their minds are empty prisms, waiting to be filled—to be satiated.
Death is a mind game. In hunger, James plays the game.
Issue #6 CONTENTS
MAKE DO AND MAKE MEND
STORM CLOUD RAIN, GRAVEYARD DIRT
THE BLUE BOY
MURDER AND CRUELTY FREE
S Van Sickel
A PROPER FOUNDATION
Whitney Hayes hails from the mountains of Virginia and recently earned her MFA degree from Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Word Riot, Atticus Review, and Broad Magazine, as well as online at RandomNerds.com. She is passionate about social justice work, sells whiskey on the side, and is a Vonnegut fangirl. She is currently working on a collection of essays.