Minutes before, the James Buchanan High cafeteria had been empty, except for the usual arrangement of tables and the half-dozen seniors who made it to school on a day no one else seemed to have been able.
Then the six of them had left the cafeteria. They filed out into the entryway and were shocked to see some kind of beast-man with an axe standing outside the school. They had decided that, for at least the moment, the cafeteria was the safest place to figure out what was going on. To figure out what their options should be. What their options could be.
In that small window of time in which they were gone, the cafeteria had become strewn with bodies.
They were laid across the tables. They were slumped on the benches. They were stretched across the floor so densely that many were criss-crossing on top of one another. They were bunched so closely against the walls that a few seemed to be sitting upright against them, though their limply hanging heads made their positions all the more creepy.
Some of the bodies were completely naked. Others, clothed, even if barely. Many were missing limbs—a lost arm here or a severed leg there as Aaron surveyed them—and almost all had massive gashes and wounds all over their bodies. The floor was slick with their blood, still flowing free from the injuries on many of them.
The cafeteria rank in a way that it had not minutes ago. The scent was somehow… warm. Aaron never knew a scent could have a temperature before. It vaguely reminded him of his freshman year when he broke his nose during a scrimmage; it bled for hours before he was convinced to go get it looked at. Occasionally a thick clot of blood and snot would feel like it was forming near the back of his throat, but he forced it out with a hard snort. And then the bleeding intensified in its wake until he finally got it packed properly.
That memory was the scent of the cafeteria.
Nat made some sort of retching or gasping noise to Aaron’s left. He reached out to grab Becky and turn her away from the carnage. She was already shaking in his arms by the time he got her facing the doors again. Aaron stayed focused on the bodies in front of them; he studied the closest ones. To his right was Mr. George, Aaron’s tenth grade English teacher. A massive gash stretched across his balding scalp, exposing what Aaron had to assume was the whiteness of his skull. His narrow rectangular glasses were smudged in blood. To Aaron’s left, atop a lunchtable, was Phil Duchesne. He would be a junior that year of school. His arm had been severed at the elbow, his throat had a jagged slit going over its length. His naked body was covered in other smaller lacerations. Next to Phil was a woman Aaron did not recognize as either a student or a teacher. Her eyes were stuck in Aaron’s direction, but there was nothing… Aaron could not get a sense of any life in her. She was missing both of her legs, the area where they had been removed still leaking blood to the tile floor.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Smith said, his words emerging in an interrupted fashion as if something inside him was fighting not to let them out.
Aaron wanted to respond but… how? What could he even say in that moment? He woke up. He picked up his girlfriend. He came to school. Right? He thought back to just an hour before. He definitely remembered waking up. Was he dreaming? Did he ever have a dream before where he thought he might be dreaming? Wouldn’t thinking that you are dreaming be the sign that you aren’t dreaming? Where did the bodies come from? How long were the six of them out at the front doors? Was any of this real? Were just parts of it?
No, even if they were there longer than it felt like they had been, they would have heard someone making all the noise this would have taken? Right? You don’t just fill a room with people and mutilate them quietly, right? But, like, they were really distracted by the axe guy. Aaron had never murdered a room full of people; how would he know what sound it made? What kind of sound would he make if—
“No, no, no, no,” Gene mumbled. Aaron, pulled from the darkness of his thought, saw him pulling an arm back from the body next to him; it looked to Aaron like Mrs. Fabrizzo, but her face was slashed with two ripping woulds, so he couldn’t quite be sure. “They’re dead.”
“How could this have—”
“Was it that masked–?”
“Are all they all dead? Every—”
“Does anybody see if—”
After several moments of shocked silence, the floodgates within them seemed to have opened. The six of them all started talking over one another, and nobody appeared to be listening to what anyone else was saying. Maybe none of them even truly needed to be heard, they just needed to get their thoughts out.
Aaron let Becky go. He was unable to make out what she was saying any more than he could everyone else. Their voices were getting more frantic by the minute.
He stepped forward to a body splayed atop the first lunchtable in front of him. It was a younger body—maybe that of a freshman’s or sophomore’s—but the face was turned away, so Aaron had no idea if he knew who it was. The back of its shirt was riddled with bloodstained holes. Aaron stretched his hand out slowly and brushed the boy’s arm. He wasn’t even sure why he was doing it. The limb was cold. Aaron’s insides revolted at the touch; it reminded him of how it felt when a rollercoaster started going down its first hill.
“Shut up. Shut up. Shut up,” he kept repeating the words, trying to break through what everyone else was saying. Each request became a louder demand. “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” He wasn’t even sure anyone was still talking. His eyes were locked on the small body with the cold arm in front of him. “Shut up! Shut up!”
He finally realized the others had all stopped to stare at him, and his face got warm as he had no idea how many times he had yelled at them even after they listened. He felt his right hand, the hand which had touched the body, balled into such a tight fist that his fingers were cramping. But he could not convince it to relax.
“I’m sorry,” Aaron muttered. “I just… we can’t just go into, like, panic here, okay?”
“Shut up!” Aaron cried again, finding himself in even less of a mood to hear Vinny’s voice than usual. “We can’t go outside. We can’t sit fucking here. We have to…,” his eyes moved to the hallway that led to the ramps to the other floors. “We have to find a room and barricade it or something, okay?” He thought of Becky pressed tight against him when they first saw all of the carnage. “We can’t stay here.”
The eerieness between them returned, but only for a short spell. Gene pointed to the left wall of the cafeteria.
“It looks less… I mean, I think there’s a…,” Gene struggled to find the words before taking a breath. He closed his eyes and started again, “That way seems like the easiest way, right?”
Aaron saw what Gene meant; there were fewer bodies on the floor in the part of the cafeteria. It would probably be easiest, to say nothing of being the most comfortable, to go along that wall. Aaron swallowed and nodded, and since he was in front of everyone from reaching out to the boy, he took the first step to that side of the room.
Even with that area being less… cluttered, as it were, Aaron stepped carefully. There may have been fewer corpses to deal with, but the floor was still slippery with blood and other fluids. He wanted nothing more than to run out of there like he was clocking a high time on the 40, but he needed to be careful. He thought of himself moving carelessly. Falling. Making more contact with cold and lifeless body parts. Something in the very center of his body shivered. He didn’t want the rest of his classmates see him react like that. They needed him to be strong, he figured.
Halfway along the wall, Aaron heard a sudden skid and turned around in shock to see Vinny pawing at the wall with Nat’s arms around his chest.
“Sorry, I slipped,” Vinny whispered, eyes a bit wide and biting his lower lip. Aaron shook his head and continued toward the turn to the hallway of lockers.
As they got near the back of the lunchroom, the bodies were more spread out, and Aaron could tell that in a couple of feet, there did not appear to be any more at all. As he neared the corner that led to the ramps, it looked like whatever had happened inside the school was kept to just the cafeteria. For the moment at least.
When he reached the hall, that was confirmed. The short walk to the ramps was clear, and nothing else seemed… well, everything looked normal, as far as Aaron could figure. He held out his hand behind him in a stopping motion to make as sure as he could before they progressed. He could see the ramp up to the second floor. He could see the ramp down to the basement level. Both seemed clear as could be, but he couldn’t be positive; the lights were on for the main floor where they came in, sure, but the other side of the building did not seem to have that luxury.
He heard another noise, a creaking sound, followed by what sounded like someone slapping a table or something.
“God damn it, Vinny…,” Aaron growled lowly, turning around, but Vinny looked as surprised as he was.
“It wasn’t me!”
“It wasn’t any of us,” Smith said from the rear of the group.
What Aaron could only describe as a strained grunt emerged from the middle of the cafeteria, and another slap rang out from the same area. At the noise, one of the lunchtables shook, toppling one of the bodies rested atop it to the ground. A hand reached up from the far side of the table and smacked down on top, causing the slapping sound Aaron had heard twice before.
This time, the appendage was able to get a hold, though, and it pulled the middle-aged woman to which it was attached to her feet. She was missing her right arm at the shoulder, but she struggled and pulled herself up with just her left. Her top was ripped and tattered, with a massive splatter of blood around where her missing arm should have been, and it barely clung to her body. Her hair was caked in dried blood (hers or just from being on the floor, Aaron could not tell) to the point where Aaron had no idea what color it might have been underneath the mess. She continued pushing against the table to get the footing under her unsteady legs. Finally balanced, she probed with her remaining arm the spot where her other one should have been.
“Are you okay?” Smith called to her, his sudden voice causing Aaron to recoil. “What—how did you get here?”
The woman’s head snapped towards them at the sound of his voice, and her only response was some rasp that could not possibly have been a word. She quit pawing at her missing limb.
Smith continued at her. “Do you know where you are?”
“What is your name?” Becky added. “Do you have any family?”
The woman made another guttural sound in response. She never took her eyes off of them. She took a wobbly step in their direction, her hand still propping herself up against the tabletop. Then she took another step.
Feet from her, another clattering sound broke. Another one of the assumed-dead was rolling off of the table and placing his feet on the ground. As he tried to stand, his head flopped sideways onto his shoulder; his neck was mostly—but not completely—severed through. He stumbled awkwardly as he tried to move forward, but he fell forward onto another body as he did so.
Not far from where he collapsed came a barbaric screech of a noise…
“Go,” Nat muttered, pushing Becky into Aaron. “Go, go, go!”
Aaron did not need any more than that. Whatever was wrong with these people—whether Aaron knew some of them or not—it was definitely more than he was able to handle. He charged up the ramp to the top floor without consideration. He moved without a plan or a thought other than to get away and find a room. Find a room, hide inside, and… then what? But it was all he had.
Becky grabbed his arm at the top of the ramp. “Go block off the other doors!” She pointed upwards to the slit across the ceiling. “Mrs. DeMatteis showed us how to latch the gate without the key once during cheer practice!”
Aaron’s heart stopped pounding inside his own ears for a second to take in his girlfriend’s words. Unfortunately, it also let him hear the sound of a ruckus growing from where they just came. There were far more than three voices now, though nothing Aaron heard was more than grunts or shrieks. The lunchtables made horrible screeches as they seemed to be getting shoved across the floor. “Are you sure?”
Smith jumped up and grabbed the bottom of the pull-down gate so that Becky could reach it. “She said she’s sure, guy, we got three other doors to the lower level to get, come on!”
“You can get those, I’m going to—”
“No,” Becky shouted, pushing his chest. “I’m going to get all nervous if you are here watching me! Just go help them!”
Aaron nodded and reluctantly started down the hallway. As he left, he saw Becky pull the grate the rest of the way and get down on her knees to fumble with it against the floor. She nodded to assure him she had it.
The top and bottom floors of Building B of the school were H-shaped, with the top of the ramp leading to a short hall that eventually formed the middle hallway that connected the two others. There were three stairwells down to the bottom level, next to rooms 201B, 209B, and 225B. As long as those stairwells were open, Becky’s locking of the gate was little more than a nice gesture.
“Okay,” Smith started with a clap of his hands, getting everyone’s attention. “I’ll go lock the door outside of Mr. Biondo’s class. Aaron, go get the one by Mrs. McDougal’s. Nat, that leaves you to lock up the one by Mrs. Ramirez. Just…,” Smith shook his head, “lock, block, and seal off the doors however you can!”
Everyone nodded and rushed off to their corners of the floor. Aaron lost sight of all of them by the time he got to the door next to Mrs. McDougal’s classroom, number 209B. He clicked the deadbolt on the door and made a move back to the others, but something about it just didn’t feel… enough. Remembering the past summer, he looked at the metal frame of the door, reached up to the top portion of it, and pulled it downward.
The steel frame strained in his grasp. Aaron pulled down just a bit harder, trying to find the balance between bending the frame and yanking it right off the doorway completely. The metal bent downward, covering the path of the door.
Aaron then put both hands on the left side of the frame and warped it inward, as well. He stepped back to check out his work. The door was now latched and the frame bent in such a way that, well, no one was getting through there, he knew.
When he got to the crossing hallway in front of the restrooms, where Vinny and Gene were waiting for everyone, Becky was just getting back herself. She was breathing a little harder than before, but also nodding to confirm she had sealed the gate off. Soon after, Smith and Nat came from either side of the other corridor, Smith giving a thumbs-up signal as he made his way to them.
They stood there in the hallway that separated the restrooms from rooms 210B and 211B. Four ways in, four ways out, all of them sealed from whatever the hell was going on at James Buchanan High School. Or the whole world, for all they knew.
The noise of clattering metal told them something had just hit the grate at the top of the ramp. Aaron held his breath as the sound continued for several seconds until he realized that it meant the gate was holding.
“Okay, so… now what?” Nat asked them as the gate continued to rattle.
No one had answer.