We found Malcolm’s body in his room. Frantic, we checked the only window – it was still boarded up – still barred fast. And there were no bite marks on him.
Natural causes, Andre breathed. I wanted to touch his curly red hair one more time, but not in front of the others. I saw the crystal goblet by the doorway; it had shattered into a million tiny cubes when it fell. I blinked back the tears.
They took him to the courtyard and burned him quickly – the oven heats up much more easily these days – and spread his ashes across the garden. As Mary Margaret spoke the quick words of that now-familiar prayer, I noticed that the lettuce was doing well. The carrots would be ready any day now.
Clara and the two youngest were already cleaning up when we returned. She was sweeping, Thomas was folding Malcolm’s robes and Isaac was putting his things into a box. The crossbow went in first. Then the books.
I left to check the perimeter. I should have asked Andre to come, at least, but I didn’t want to be around anyone alive today. I took the machete instead.
Last night, Malcolm had said he wanted to show me something. But I’d still been angry at him. An apology wouldn’t kill you, you know, I’d said to him. Apparently, it had.
The narrow corridors were dark and musty as graves. Their walls were still festooned with memorabilia: moulding certificates, tarnished trophies and medals, photos curling at the edges. When the torches still worked Malcolm and I would come down here to look at the people in them. We gave them names and made up stories about their lives. The stories always took place in the sunlight.
The metal double doors were still barred fast with iron staves soldered into place. I heard nothing on the other side. In the beginning you could hear them shuffling about, mewling and groaning, feebly butting against the door. But it was silent now. Thomas, who had once hidden in a closet for a week before he joined us, said that they would go comatose after a while. Just stand there like corpses, he’d said. That’s ‘cause they are corpses, Malcolm had said. I knew he was trying to be funny, but nobody laughed. I think maybe that’s when I fell for him. I’ve always liked broken things.
Our first night together he’d confessed he was still a virgin. Before, on the Outside, he’d been too afraid to talk to girls. Never thought there’d be anything scarier than that, he had said. We had laughed together at that. Suddenly, standing in the unlit hallway, I was tired of the darkness.
I made my way back to Malcolm’s room, careful not to be seen. It was empty. They had cleaned out all his things and made the bed; the room was ready for someone new. I closed the door softly behind me. Behind the wardrobe just above the floor, there was the entrance to an old ventilation shaft. We had boarded it up with plywood when we first arrived, but the wood had never been replaced with steel or reinforced with iron. It didn’t lead directly outside and metal was too precious to waste.
I quietly pried the wood away. It came off easily, as if it had been removed more than once. Malcolm wasn’t a big man, but even he would have had a hard time fitting through this hole. Desperation was a good motivator, I supposed. Being not much smaller than him, I managed to wiggle my way in; it wasn’t as cramped as I would have expected, though. Nothing’s ever what it seems, Allie, he’d always said in that smug way that made me want to smack him. You’ve got to pay attention.
The shaft sloped upwards. I had to brace myself against the sides and slide upwards one inch at a time. It was dark in here, as dark as a womb, I imagined. Finally, a shaft of light appeared above me, just beyond a sharp bend. A fresh breeze gusted through it; it smelled like rain. I paused to listen again, but I heard nothing. I slid my hunting knife out of the holster at my side and clamped it between my teeth, just in case. I’d long perfected the art of the quick stab. Slowly, I slithered towards the light.
It was too small. I realised that long before I reached it. The outtake shaft lay just before me, a short tube topped by an old ventilator fan that had long since stopped turning. Through it, I could see a small square of grass and mud framed by blue sky above. The shaft continued on in a sharp T-junction to my left and right, and I could see other squares of light. Each room must have had its own set of air shafts that led to similar places. I reached out to touch the fan, but it lay just beyond my grasp. I took a deep breath and tasted the faintest hint of rot on the air.
I began to cry.
This is one of the stories that came out of the Writivism 2014, a project of the Centre for African Cultural Excellence, with the assistance of several partner organisations, which identifies, trains and engages readers and writers in public discourse through literature. As part of this years activities, they will have The Writivism Festival from 18 – 22nd June 2014. Like the Facebook page for more updates