"Back World" is a serial thriller about a young couple facing an apocalyptic future.
A different segment will be published each week.
September 2, 2011
"Dina?" Devin called into the emptiness. "Dina! Where are you?"
Devin's head was on a swivel as he walked slowly toward the empty table, looking on the floor, around display cases, and behind the reception counter in search of his missing wife. He went into the office, checked the closets, and even looked in the kneehole of the desks while his mind raced through a litany of likely places his wife might be. If she was moving on her own, that was good news. Devin wouldn't let his mind visit the notion that she wasn't.
"Maybe she's in the bathroom," he said out loud to the empty museum, looking for the ubiquitous blue signs with the stick figures indicating "men" and "women." Finding the restrooms just past the counter, he went in. The emergency lighting was starting to dim, leaving a lot of shadows in the tiled room, particularly behind the closed doors of the stalls. "A good place for an ambush," he thought. Devin began by bending over and looking under the stall doors for feet. No sign of human life. He then slowly pushed open each door, his reflexes wired to leap forward and sweep his wife into his arms, or to jump backward to defend against an attack.
Halfway down the row of doors, he heard a scratching noise from the last stall, next to the wall. Devin hurried to the stall and quickly pushed open the door.
Empty. Just a page of leftover newspaper tucked into the handicapped rail rubbing against the tile.
He left the women's room and tried the men's room, with the same result. Nothing.
Back in the main area, Devin returned to the table to search for clues as to where his wife might have gone. The note he had left for her was missing. The blood on the table was streaked where she had slid to the edge. The floor was dotted with small blood stains, but those could have been from when he was working to clean and bandage her wound. He looked for a trail of some sort, but could only discern the small lines of blood leading to the front doors, which had marked the path where she had entered after sustaining her injury.
"Think, Devin, think!" the frantic husband said to the empty room.
In his experience, movement helped him think, so he continued to walk around the museum, poking behind counters and shelves in hopes of finding Dina.
When every possible hiding place had been explored, he turned his attention to the next logical place, which filled him with dread. If she wasn't inside, that meant she had to be outside. And outside was a place too big for one person to search effectively.
Walking toward the door, which was still partially propped open by the chair, a plan started to formulate. Devin would return to the top of the tower and see if he could spot her somewhere around the building. It would be faster than taking a lap around the park.
Before reaching the door, Devin stopped and changed directions, heading for the souvenir-filled reception counter. There, he rooted through the collections of pens, postcards, collectible thimbles, and miniature plaster versions of the tower, until he finally found what he needed: a disposable lighter with the image of the tower silk-screened on the side.
Now with a plan, a destination, and a source of light, he picked up his pace. Pushing outside, he hurried to the steps that led to the tower's stairwell, his eyes scanning each shadowed corner of the monument and every grassy stretch of lawn on the way.
On the landing leading to the tower's entrance, Devin noticed some scrape marks that weren't there during his last visit, as if something had been dragged inside.
Racing to the door, he wasted no time in hurrying into the darkness of the stairs, the heavy door clanging shut behind him with an ominous echo.
"Dina? Are you in here?"
Taking the stairs two at a time, Devin began the upward climb. Six leaps into it, his foot caught on something blocking the stairway. The trained soldier, accustomed to uneven terrain, managed to keep from tumbling backwards by grabbing the curved banister for balance. Once steady, he pulled the lighter from his pocket, flicked a flame into existence, then bent down to try and figure out what had tripped him.
It was a body. Or more accurately, it was what remained of a body.
His heart began thudding loud enough to cause an echo in his ears that was almost as loud as the echo from the door had been.
"Please, God, don't let it be her," Devin whispered through trembling lips.
It took a moment to find a familiar part on the body's misshapen remnants. There were no legs or arms. However, there was a head attached to a set of shoulders that looked odd without their normal appendages. Bringing the lighter closer, Devin prepared to make the identification his heart didn't want to accept.
This time, the heart was rewarded.
It wasn't Dina.
The head and torso belonged to a man, maybe in his late twenties, but that was all anyone would ever be able to discern. The nose, eyes, and ears were gone, removed with precision but not by surgical means. They had been bitten off. The remaining skin showed the clear dental pattern of someone or something with extremely sharp teeth that had sliced each of the parts off with one clean bite.
For the first time, Devin noticed that there was no blood - none on the face, none on the clothes, none on the steps.
The sound of an explosion filtered through the walls, this time much closer instead of coming from the other side of downtown K.C. The vibration caused some plaster and dust to rain down on the body from the landing above.
Beyond the sound of the cascading rocklike pieces was a new noise. It was the scraping sound that Devin and Dina had heard during their previous climb inside the tower.
Devin stared upward into the impenetrable darkness, looking for an outline or shadow that might reveal the location and cause of the noise.
A high pitched but quiet squeal came out of the darkness, like the sound of an electronic tone just a few clicks below the threshold of high frequencies humans couldn't hear. The scraping seemed to get faster, descending from the top of the tower.
Devin strained even harder to see what was coming, the hairs on the back of his neck leaping to attention. Maybe it was a trick of the darkness, or an imagination running wild in the face of inconceivable stress, but he thought he could see a long arm or pole extending through the black.
The door behind him was suddenly ripped open, the metal slamming against the concrete wall outside. It meant something was now at the bottom of the stairs, and something else was descending from the top of the stairs.
Devin was trapped.