Freshmint by M. B. Vujacic
“This can’t go on,” Weasel said.
He stood on tiptoe, his belly to the wall, looking through the musty glass at the street outside. The Arabian Nights hookah lounge lay in the basement of an old apartment building, its windows offering an unprecedented view of any passerby’s ankles. Or they would have, had there been any pedestrians left. Nowadays it was just an empty sidewalk lined with abandoned cars, the asphalt shimmering in the oppressive heat.
“This can’t go on,” he said again, and began pacing around the room, staring at the same couches and ornate cushions and dead TV screen he had been staring at for the past two weeks. Painted on the walls, a desert strewn with pyramids and mosques and distant oases. Empty hookahs rose from the tables like glass-and-steel minarets.
“I raise one,” Gabe said, and added a cigarette to the half-dozen already on the table. He sprawled on a couch, naked but for his boxer shorts. He had removed those too at one point, and had only put them back on after numerous complaints from Weasel and Pauline. When this all began, his head had been freshly shaven and his goatee thick and trimmed. Now his hair had grown to a dark crew cut and his beard approached that shipwreck-survivor look.
“Sure,” Pauline said, and rolled another cigarette to the pile. She sat across the table from him, also clad only in her panties. She had worn a shirt for nearly a week after they had holed up in here, but the rising temperatures forced her to abandon her modesty. Weasel and Gabe hardly noticed her breasts anymore. The heat left everyone semi-comatose.
“Let’s see them,” Gabe said, and dropped his cards on the table. Pauline obliged. They stared at the two hands in solemn contemplation. “Damn,” he said as she scooped up the cigarettes. Three days in, he had called her into the back room and tried to hook up with her. He had come out shaking his head, saying, “She’s into chicks. Hell, man, when it rains it pours.”
“What I wouldn’t give for some rain,” Weasel muttered.
Gabe looked at him. “Huh?”
“Freshmint. I miss freshmint. With saloom.”
Gabe sighed. “I feel you, bro.”
They had run out of hookah tobacco four days ago. A huge problem, as aside from playing cards and getting inebriated, smoking was their premier pastime. More importantly, it calmed the nerves. Kept hands occupied and masked the stench of stale perspiration. Restless, they turned to the cigarette rack above the bar. Pauline was a weekend smoker so she had already consumed some of those. Gabe hadn’t bought a pack in years, but he started again out of boredom. Even Weasel, whose only encounter with tobacco was the weekly hookah with Gabe, had a few. And he hated them. Couldn’t understand how anyone could enjoy such flavorless smoke.
Not that he understood much of anything anymore. The world had officially gone to hell fourteen days ago, though the signs of the coming calamity had been there for a bit longer. A month or so. First the nights had changed. Became warmer. Brighter. After a week, you could no longer tell night from day. Then the new light appeared in the sky. Everybody assumed it was a comet, what with it having a tail and all, but then all the big shot astrophysicists came on TV to explain that it was in fact a star. A red giant that somehow shot through space like the galaxy’s largest, meanest rocket.
The astrophysicists claimed that Mira II—that was the star’s official moniker, though people soon dubbed it Wormwood—would come no closer to Earth than two hundred million miles. A hair’s breadth in space terms, but still too far to affect us much. Two days later, earthquakes. Chasms opening everywhere. Streets caving in and buildings toppling. Villages buried under avalanches. Volcanoes erupting to spew searing death over the countryside. Tsunamis galore.
Gabe and Weasel were at the Arabian Nights when it began. The owner, Adnan, cranked up the TV volume and then everyone in the lounge stared at the destruction on display, hookah pipes hovering before slack mouths. Then the tremors began. Deep in the earth, like an electrical current prickling the soles of their feet. Hookahs fell from tables, spilling coals over the linoleum. The building groaned. The screen went black. The lights flickered and died. Patrons screamed in the gloom. Adnan grabbed his head and fell on his knees and wailed like a man doomed.
Gabe and Weasel were the first out the door. Though it was ten in the evening, outside it may as well have been high noon. People ran from buildings in abject panic. Cars crashed against each other. Flowerpots fell from balconies to explode on the sidewalk. A cloud of dust rose over distant rooftops. On the pallid blue sky, Mira II swam mindless like a fiery tadpole.
The tremors passed, but the panic stayed. The streets were soon blocked with wrecked or abandoned cars and people were stampeding. Weasel would’ve stampeded with them, but Gabe grabbed his arm and told him they should stay put. “Where are you gonna go?” he had asked. “You’ve seen the news—the goddamn earthquakes are everywhere. We should stay here and wait to be rescued.”
“But Gabe… What if the building falls?”
“Look at it. It’s already stopped shaking. If we stay in the street, we’re gonna get trampled or bricks are gonna fall on our heads or we’re gonna get shot by looters. Unless you got a helicopter, it’s best we hide and wait for this whole thing to blow over.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“What is this, the end of the world? Of course it will.”
They returned to the deserted Arabian Nights. Adnan had fled along with the rest. He had left the keys on the bar, so Gabe went and locked the door. Two hours and a hookah later, their bellies began to groan. The fridge behind the bar was stacked with juices and booze and bottled water, but no food aside from a homemade chicken sandwich. Adnan’s dinner, most likely. After they had eaten it, Gabe said, “We hafta get some cans.”
“Canned food, bro. Tuna. Sardines. Beans. Stuff can last us years.”
“Where will we find that?”
“In the supermarket across the street, of course.”
“I… I doubt it’s open now.”
“So? We’ll loot it.”
“There’s no power, remember? Security cams are all dead. Besides, after we’re rescued and everything returns to normal, we’ll go back and pay for the stuff we took. This is about survival, bro. I wouldn’t be surprised if the place has already been looted.”
They arrived at the supermarket to find its front window shattered and its cash registers emptied. They filled two trash bags with cans, crackers, candies, rice cakes, toilet paper, bottled water, soft drinks, red wine—Gabe insisted even the cheapest, warmest red wine tasted okay if you mixed it with Coke—and cartridges for the portable gas stove Adnan kept in the back. “Don’t worry,” he said as they headed back. “We’ll have ourselves a cozy catastrophe.”
They first saw Pauline as they walked back to Arabian Nights. A twenty-something redhead with a messenger bag under her arm, she stumbled down the sidewalk, leaning a hand on a nearby wall like a sailor traversing a storm-wracked deck. Gabe asked if she was okay, and she said, “No, fuck no, I’m not okay,” and showed them the matted, bloody hair at the side of her head.
They took her to Arabian Nights and disinfected the gash with tequila and dabbed it with napkins until it stopped bleeding. Pauline had been outside when the tremors hit. A chunk of masonry broke off from a first-floor balcony and clipped her on the head. She had tried to get home, only to discover a gaping fissure had zig-zagged through the city, swallowing entire buildings. She had been wandering the area, searching for a way to cross the chasm, when she ran into Gabe and Weasel. Weasel asked her why she didn’t just follow the fissure itself, and she licked her lips and said, “I did, at first. But then I heard…”
“Umm, heard what?”
“Noises. From the fissure. They weren’t tremors. They were more like… squawks.”
“Yeah, like there were giant birds down there.”
“In the fissure?”
“Yeah. I got scared so I ran away.”
“It’s just nerves,” Gabe said.
“Screw you, I know what I heard.”
Gabe shook his head. “You probably heard earth shifting and the echo made it sound weird.”
“No, it wasn’t like that. It sounded like a bird.”
“An underground bird is an oxymoron.”
Sadly, Pauline was right. Their one remaining link to the outside world, the radio, was crammed with people describing the monstrosities that had emerged from the cracks in the earth. Biologists speculated there was an entire ecosystem deep beneath the planet’s crust, hitherto unknown to us, and that the seismic disturbances caused by Mira II’s gravity had sent its denizens skittering for the surface. The last broadcasts they heard before their batteries ran out urged listeners to avoid these creatures, since most appeared omnivorous.
Not that they needed the warning. Every now and then, they too heard things. Hisses. Squawks. Growls. A week in, a woman dashed through the street outside. Before they could call to her, something else darted past the window. A serpentine body lined with myriad segmented legs. Gone too fast for a good look. They heard a heavy thump as the woman slipped or was dragged down. The ripping, snapping noises that came after she stopped screaming fueled their nightmares ever since. The incident erased whatever ideas of leaving Arabian Nights they might’ve entertained. Until now.
“Freshmint,” Weasel said. “God, do I miss freshmint.”
Gabe wiped his brow. His hand came away glistening. “I hear you, bro. I’d kill for any flavor right now. Even orange. These cigarettes taste like trash.”
“I’ll be happy to take them from you,” Pauline said.
Weasel licked his lips. “I was thinking. Maybe we could…”
Weasel shook his head.
“Can’t leave me hanging after you got me wet, bro. C’mon, say it.”
Weasel looked through the window at the parched street. “There’s that place.”
“The one next to Nefertiti.”
Gabe’s eyes widened. “You mean…”
“What the hell is Nefertiti?” Pauline asked.
“A hookah lounge Weasel and me used to frequent until the new owner made it a booze-free establishment.”
Pauline arched a brow. “And?”
“There’s a hookah store next to it. It stocks everything hookah-related. Probably has boxes full of flavored tobacco.”
“Freshmint,” Weasel said. “And saloom.”
Gabe grinned. “And lemon. And apple. And coffee. And chocolate. And watermelon. Holy shit, I’d drink my own piss for a watermelon hookah.”
“With saloom,” Weasel said.
Pauline frowned. “You can’t be serious.”
Gabe shrugged. “It’s just half a block from here.”
“I don’t care if it’s next door. Those things are out there.”
“We haven’t seen them in days.”
“That doesn’t mean they’re gone. I’m not letting you two go out. You saw what happened to that woman.”
“Well, umm, she didn’t have a gun,” Weasel said.
All three of them looked at the shotgun on the couch, its wooden haft scratched and glazed with age. They had found it in a drawer behind the bar, laid alongside a nightstick and a can of pepper spray. Adnan’s security.
Pauline shook her head. “Nobody here can shoot a gun.”
“I can,” Gabe said.
“I’ve been to the range.”
“How many times?”
“Did you use a shotgun that one time?”
“No, a pistol.”
“Forget it. Not happening. There’s no goddamn freshmint in your goddamn future.”
Weasel and Gabe spent most of the following twenty-four hours standing by the windows, watching the street for signs of inhuman presence. They occasionally saw it too. A pigeon landed on the sidewalk and pecked around. A rat scuttled under a car, its hairless tail bouncing. A skin-and-bone cat came by and looked at them, its yellow eyes narrow and judgmental. It looked diseased. When it became apparent no monsters infested the streets, they brought up Nefertiti again.
“Use your brains,” Pauline said, looking up from her game of solitaire. “Those things lived all their lives underground. Daylight must be blinding to them. They’re probably hiding inside buildings.”
Gabe threw his hands up. “What would they be doing in there? Either they went back underground, or they migrated in search of food.”
“There’s plenty of food in people’s homes.”
“Uh, I don’t think animals can open fridges,” Weasel said.
“Or cans,” Gabe said.
She rolled her eyes. “Whatever. I’m not going outside to find out.”
“It’s… It’s a supply run. You know, like they do in zombie movies. Gabe thinks—”
“I don’t give a damn what Gabe thinks. I’m not risking my life for a box of goddamn hookah tobacco. Seriously, what’s with you and hookahs? You’re like a couple of junkies.”
“I… We love smoking hookahs,” Weasel said.
“We’re passionate about it, okay?” Gabe said.
Pauline groaned. “Madness. Fucking madness.”
Gabe laid the shotgun, the nightstick, and the pepper spray on a table. “You take this,” he said, handing Weasel the pepper spray. Before Weasel could protest, Gabe stroked his beard and said, “You’re gonna need a melee weapon.” He went behind the bar and returned with an ornate scimitar. The same scimitar belly-dancers performing at Arabian Nights used as part of their shows, swinging it in rhythm with the music or balancing it on their heads or even holding it in their teeth.
“Umm, Gabe… I think that’s just a prop.”
“It’s not a prop, bro. Look how heavy it is. It’s like a baseball bat.”
They skinned some pillows and fashioned primitive hoods. Then they donned their clothes for the first time in too long and fiddled with the shotgun until they figured out how to switch off the safety. Pauline watched them, her mouth a straight line. “Are you really going to risk your lives for some tobacco?”
Gabe shrugged. “It’s only gonna take like twenty minutes.”
She followed them up the stairs and to the door, her arms crossed around her sweaty torso. “Guys, seriously, this is stupid.”
Weasel stood in the doorway and offered her the key. When she didn’t take it, he swallowed dry phlegm and dropped the key in the nook of her arm, careful not to accidentally touch her breast. He stepped out after Gabe.
Outside, a hundred degrees in the shade. In April. The air was warm and dry, the wind blowing in Weasel’s face hot like the fumes blasting from a car’s exhaust. Heated asphalt cooking his feet through his shoes. A dead, cloudless sky. Mira II looming over everything, twice the size of the Sun. Necrotic spots like clouds of soot marred its orange tail. A cold yellow light glowed in its iris like a luminescent tumor.
Gabe took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He walked with his back stooped, the shotgun pointed forward, glancing over his shoulder as if to make sure Weasel was following. The nightstick stuck out of his back pocket like a metal tail. At the intersection, they heard footsteps and turned to see Pauline hurrying after them, trying to move fast and stay quiet at the same time and failing at both. “I’ll go mad if I stay there alone,” she whispered as she caught up, panting like she had just run a marathon. In her hand, a lipstick.
“What are you gonna do with that? Paint dicks on their faces?” Gabe asked.
“It’s pepper spray, dumbass. I always have it in my bag.”
The Arabian Nights area had been lucky. Not so the rest of the block. Cracks cut through streets and sidewalks and even buildings. Some were broad enough to rip tires or trap wheels or swallow people whole. Crashed or immobilized vehicles blocked most streets. They passed through a small park with a playground nestled between the trees. Dead grass, dying branches. Desiccated leaves rustling like ghostly whispers. A swing swaying in the wind, its chains too hot to grasp. Silence sepulchral.
Also, bodies. Birds. Cats. Dogs. People. Some broken under falling masonry, others run over by panicked drivers, others still ravaged in manners most bestial. All reduced to bone and bits of skin and fur. The stench wasn’t quite as bad as roadkill, but it was everywhere. It wasn’t long before they sprayed the sidewalk with the semi-digested tuna they’d had for breakfast.
Sprawled in the gutter, they found the bastard child of a crab and a turtle. Big as a raccoon, its shell had been cracked open as if with a rock and its insides devoured. Another of its kind rested against a bus, its pincers torn off in what must’ve been a desperate last stand. More uncanny carcasses dotted the path to Nefertiti. Unlike the crab-turtle things, most of these possessed no exoskeleton, making it difficult to glean their original shapes from what little remained.
Then Nefertiti was up ahead, and in the midst of that fetid graveyard bathed in the glow of a baleful star, Weasel felt the corners of his lips twitch. Its windows were gone, the doors hanging from their hinges, the great sun shade that shielded its terrace torn to strips. Half the building had collapsed. Sticks of rebar poked from smashed walls like malformed ribs.
The little hookah store didn’t fare much better. Its front window was shards and the hookahs had tumbled from their shelves, covering the floor with shattered glass. Gabe crept up to the store like a kid playing soldier. He peeked inside and gave a thumbs-up. The door was jammed, so he cleared the remains of the window with the nightstick and clambered into the gloom. Minutes oozed like blood. Then Gabe said, “Bingo,” and Weasel let out a breath he didn’t remember holding.
Gabe emerged with a plastic bag full of little carton boxes with drawings of lemons, apples, bananas, strawberries, and cherries plastered above photos of blackened lungs and Smoking Kills signs. He gave the bag to Weasel and said, “Didn’t find any freshmint. But I bet there’s some in Nefertiti.”
“Are you for real?” Pauline said.
“Real as they come, baby.”
“No, fuck you because my ex-boyfriend used to drop that same stupid line and now you reminded me of that asshole.”
Gabe frowned. “You said you were into chicks.”
“I sure did.”
He snorted, shaking his head. Then he headed for Nefertiti.
They stepped on its terrace and stood in its ruined doorway. A two-level establishment, its second floor was wreathed in shadow and its first littered with torn cushions and broken bottles and fallen hookahs. The stench of rot wafted from within. Under the bar, rooted at the edge of sunlight, lay a couple dozen brown objects. Each was about the size of a fist. And they pulsed.
Weasel heard himself say, “Eggs,” in a child’s voice, and then something on the second floor shifted. A segmented, serpentine body covered in a gnarled carapace. As long as an alligator and almost as thick, it uncoiled itself from the darkness above and fell to the floor with a meaty thud. It stood on its many legs and wiggled its antennae and clicked its mandibles, and he had just enough time to think, A centipede, a giant fucking centipede, oh my God, it’s a giant fucking centipe—
It charged. Pauline screamed and so did Weasel and so did Gabe. The shotgun roared and a hole burst through the bar, then the thing lunged. It embraced Gabe’s leg and drove the many moving parts of its mouth into his thigh. He shrieked and went down on his ass. It started shaking him up and down, its head spattering crimson. He pumped the shotgun and shoved the barrel in the thing’s face. Its head exploded like a dropped melon.
Another centipede rushed from Nefertiti. Still screaming, Pauline raised her fake lipstick and drenched it in orange poison. But the thing never slowed. It had no eyes. It had evolved in a lightless place that rendered vision minimal and oculars wasteful. It clamped its many legs around Pauline’s torso and dug its mandibles into her throat and slammed her on the concrete like a lioness tackling a gazelle.
Weasel grasped the scimitar in both hands and brought it down on the centipede’s head. The blade cut into the carapace in a spurt of blue ichor. The thing screeched and tore its face out of Pauline, yanking the scimitar from his hands. It hissed at him, the sword still planted in its skull, the many appendages around its maw spreading like a flytrap from hell.
“Move, bro!” Gabe shouted.
Weasel’s feet tangled and he stumbled and fell against the terrace banister. He felt thunder in his chest and saw a hole yawn in the thing’s side like a mutilated orifice. It screeched again, then spun around and fled, trailing ichor and bits of carapace. It skittered up a ruined wall and disappeared into the building. A hush ensued.
Weasel looked at what remained of Pauline’s throat. After that, he looked at her no more. He pushed the decapitated centipede off Gabe and helped him to his feet. In death, the thing’s legs squirmed, slathering its own fluids over the tiles like a Rorschach pattern. Gabe’s jeans were shredded and drenched red, the flesh of his thigh crisscrossed with gashes.
Cradling the shotgun and the tobaccos to their chests, they trundled back. Past the hookah store and the carcasses of what they now recognized as the centipedes’s previous meals. Past the park with its dying trees and empty playground. Through a broad street clogged with cars that shimmered in the sun like a desert highway. Into a trashed drugstore to stock up on bandages, antibiotics, disinfectants, and painkillers. By the time Weasel had finished dressing the wound, Gabe’s face was so pale it resembled porcelain.
A couple hundred feet from Arabian Nights, Gabe stumbled and fell on one knee. He had to lean on Weasel the rest of the way. As they unlocked the door, he looked up to the sickly blue heavens and the alien star reigning above, and said, “Fuck you, you fucking bitch. Damn, I feel like crap.”
“Jesus, Gabe, you’re burning up.”
“Just gimme more painkillers.”
Weasel helped him down the stairs and laid him on a couch and brought him water. Gabe emptied the bottle, and said, “Freshmint with lemon. Fix me a freshmint with lemon.”
“Sure, man,” Weasel said, and went behind the bar. He filled the hookah’s vase with lukewarm water, added the silicone grommet, and mixed the two tobaccos with his fingers. He placed the mixture in the bowl, then tore a portion of aluminum foil and wrapped it over the top of the bowl so that it resembled a tiny drum. With a toothpick, he poked holes in the foil. It was only after he had affixed the bowl to the hookah that he realized he had forgotten to heat up the charcoals. He opened another drawer and looked at the orange carton box within. Coconut coals. The best. He flipped up the lid and reached inside. His face contorted.
“Oh man, Gabe, you… You won’t believe this.”
Still no answer.
Weasel leaned over the bar. Gabe lay on his back with his eyes shut and his mouth open. Slowly, walking on tiptoe, Weasel approached the couch. No snoring. He hovered a palm over Gabe’s mouth. No breath. He checked his pulse. Nothing.
“Oh Gabe,” he muttered, inspecting the bandage. Some red had seeped into the cloth. Hands shaking, he undid it and looked at the wound. Swollen black veins spread from the gashes like skeletal fingers. He should’ve known. After all, centipedes were venomous creatures.
Weasel drew his fingers through his hair. He had nothing to cover Gabe with, so he piled cushions on his head and chest until only his legs were visible. That made it worse, somehow. He went back behind the bar and just stood there, staring at the charcoals box. A single black cube sat within. He needed at least two for a hookah. They had been so obsessed with getting more tobacco, they forgot to check how many coals they had left.
Weasel staggered to the center of the room like a drunkard and placed his hands on his face, sweat and tears against his palms. Something snapped in the back of his mind, and before he knew it he was prone on a couch, laughing. And crying. And laughing and crying at the same time. Then he began to scream.
Far up in the barren sky, Mira II shone brighter.
Mijat Budimir Vujačić is an economist by trade, storyteller at heart. He is a published author of three horror novels written in Serbian: Krvavi Akvarel, NekRomansa, and Vampir. His stories appeared in SQ, Serial, Devolution Z, Turn to Ash, Crimson Streets, Encounters, Acidic Fiction, Double Barrel Horror, Creepy Campfire Quarterly, Under the Bed, 9Tales, and Infernal Ink magazines, as well as in professional anthologies Infinite Darkness, Toxic Tales, Silent Scream, The Nightmare Collective, Down With The Fallen, and The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Vol1. He believes a strong work ethic is the root of all success, and that it is best to err on the side of action. A fan of all things horror, he is also an avid gamer, occasional blogger, hookah enthusiast, and a staunch dog person. He lives in Belgrade, Serbia. You can reach him via email (email@example.com) or check out his blog.