By Joshua Scribner
“I thought you were one of them,” Luke said to the girl standing on his front porch.
She was young, probably fifteen or sixteen, too small to be carrying the pack strapped to her shoulders. She smelled faintly of alcohol.
“I came into town for supplies,” she responded through labored breath. “I was walking down the street and could hear your music playing. You're the first living person I've seen in days.”
Luke hesitated, then said, “Have you seen any of the things that did this?”
She looked down the street, and her expression grew ponderous. “Yes, I've seen a few here and there. They look like they're kind of scouting. They see me, and they stare at me, but they won't attack.” She looked back at him. “And you play your music very loud, so you must not be afraid of them.”
Luke nodded. “They won't attack me either.”
“I know I must look like a pig,” said the girl, who called herself Sam. “But this is the first hot food I've seen for a while.”
They sat at the kitchen table. Luke had made a simple meal of polish sausage and canned beans. He had been worried it wouldn't be good enough. “I understand,” Luke replied with a smile.
He tried not to, but he kept looking at her hands. They were dry and cracked.
Sam didn't seem to notice his glances. “The electricity is gone everywhere. Thank God you have a geny.”
Luke waited while she finished eating, and then he took up the dishes.
Sam remained at the table. “I can't stay long. I'm going to Texas to see if my mom is still alive.”
The radio broadcasts, the last news to go, echoed in his mind. The things were all over the world. He couldn't tell her that right now. Maybe later.
Luke looked at the dials on the stove. They all read, “Off.” He touched each heating coil, individually, just to be sure they weren't hot. Feeling nothing, he walked away. He only made it five steps before the compulsions attacked. What if he hadn't touched the coils long enough? Maybe he'd grazed one of them and not felt the burn. What if he'd rushed through reading the dials, missed seeing a slight displacement? Luke reminded himself that such thoughts were crazy, but knew he'd lose the argument with his obsessive mind. He had to turn back. He checked the dials over again, moved one a centimeter so that it was more centered on the “Off” setting. He touched each coil again. Feeling nothing, he turned to walk away. He jolted a little, because he had not expected to see Sam there.
“You scared me,” he announced.
“I'm sorry,” she said in a slightly defensive tone. “I just came out to tell you goodnight.”
They both looked at each other in silence for a few seconds, and then Sam said what he hoped she wouldn't.
“What were you doing?”
He hesitated, scanning for a lie, and then finally went with, “Something's wrong with the stove's thermostat. I have to make sure it's really off.”
Sam continued to stare at him a few seconds, before saying, “Oh. Well, goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” he said back.
The sight of her walking away filled him with relief. No doubt, Sam had just figured out he was some kind of freak, but at least he didn't have to explain what she'd witnessed for a while. He waited to hear her door shut, started to go to bed, didn't make it. He checked the stove again.
“I want you to come with me,” said Sam, between bites.
They were having a breakfast of pancakes and eggs.
Luke studied her face, her begging eyes, couldn't help but be reminded of his daughter, who had been Sam's age. She'd lived with her mother. If there had just been more time, he'd been a better dad, more involved. He'd not know the world as he knew it would soon end.
A protective sense rushed over him. Maybe, for his own sake, he needed to compensate for the loss. He wasn't sure.
Luke said, “I need a few days, and then I'll go.”
“The funk is the worst of it,” Sam said.
“Yeah,” Luke agreed.
It had been five days since she asked him to come. They had been walking for about twenty minutes now, packs strapped to their shoulders. In town, there were too many stopped cars to make quick progress driving. Their plan was to take an abandoned car once they made it out of the city. Right now, it was just easier to hike.
“Strange how you see so many people and so many animals, but no cats,” Sam noted.
She was speaking of the dead, of course. Luke had to look mostly right in front of him, to avoid stepping on the carnage, but he did study that area for a while. “I think you're right about the cats,” he offered.
“I know I am,” Sam replied. “When I was walking before, I saw live ones. I tried to get them to come, but they were too spooked.”
They were quiet for a little while. A few times, he glanced over, noted that Sam seemed to be in thought. He left her alone and she finally spoke again.
“Have you seen the way the things kill?”
The memories flashed through his head. “Yeah. I've seen it a few times.”
Sam blew out air, said, “A monster looks at the person and kind of freezes them somehow. That soft blue light comes from the monster's eyes and hits the person's eyes. Then the person just falls over dead. They've never even frozen me, though. They just look at me and keep going.”
He could see her in his periphery, could tell she was studying him. Discomforted, he kept looking ahead.
“Luke, I know you're a private person, and I respect that, but there's something I have to tell you.”
His mind went back to the night she caught him compulsively checking the stove. He didn't want to go there, but he knew it was probably unavoidable. “Okay,” he responded.
“There's a reason I wanted you to come,” Sam said. “You see, when I saw you checking the stove the other night, I knew why you did it. You have obsessive-compulsive disorder, the same as me. I'm just a little better at hiding my symptoms than you are. You're a checker. You have to repeatedly check things like stove dials and locks on the doors.”
Luke felt his jaw drop a little. How perceptive was this kid? Or maybe she was just sneaky. Had she spied on him, seen him doing more than checking the stove?
“I'm a germ phobe,” Sam continued. “I rub alcohol on my hands constantly. That's why they're so dry and cracked.”
They walked in silence for a little while, his suspicion melting, being replaced by a sense of relief. Here was someone who would not judge him, who would understand the weird things he did. Sam spoke and stole his piece of mind.
“That's why I wanted you to come. I knew the thing that we had in common, the thing that protects us from the monsters, is our OCD.”
The first tinge of anxiety set in. “What?” Luke blurted. “How?”
Sam didn't seem to sense his fear. She spoke with the excitement of someone who'd solved a riddle. “I've thought that for a while, even before I met you. It's been shown that OCD brains are more active than normal brains. That is, we show more electricity. It's the same as it is in cats. I mean, have you ever seen a cat obsessively groom itself. It's like all cats have OCD. And like it is for us, something about the hyperelectricity of their brains repulses the monsters.”
Luke stopped walking. His heart hammered. His breath picked up by the second.
Sam stopped too. “Are you okay?”
Luke looked at her. “You've suspected this all along?” he asked, knowing she'd already told him she had.
Sam hesitated and then said in a defensive tone, “Yeah, I have. That's why we're going to see my mom. She has severe OCD and lives in a halfway house. She's the reason I know so much about it really. I've studied the disease in hope that I don't end up as bad as her.” Sam held up her hands as if for display.
“Why didn't you tell me sooner?” Luke asked.
She smiled. “Because I know how it is with OCD. You want to keep it private. I was just waiting for the right time.”
Luke started to shake, an awareness of how out in the open they were impinging upon him. “If you would have told me earlier, I wouldn't have done it.”
“Done what?” Sam asked, her smile gone.
“Take pills!” he snapped. “I started after you asked me to go. I wanted to be ready.”
Sam stopped looking at him, started looking past him. Fear took over her expression.
“Luke,” she whispered. “Don't turn around. They have to look at your face to do it.”
She got into her pack. Luke knew she was going for her gun, but also knew it wouldn't do much good. You could injure the things, but they healed very quickly, right before your eyes.
Two of them came onto the sidewalk, behind Sam. They had six legs that looked like tentacles with suction cups. On top those legs sat what looked like human heads that had suffered severe burns. Sam was still getting her gun out, when Luke felt his body stiffen. Before the blue light came, he kind of laughed on the inside, thinking of how he had thought his OCD would kill him one day, but how in reality it was its absence that did him in.
Bio: Joshua Scribner is the author of the novels Mantis Nights, The Coma Lights and Nescata . His fiction won both second and fifth place in the 2008 Whispering Spirits Flash Fiction contest. Up to date information on his work can be found at joshuascribner.com. Joshua currently lives in Michigan with his wife and two daughters.