Our family had our fair share of hardships last year. Paxton’s mother died alone in a hospital in upstate New York. Her father, Bill, developed amnesia quickly after that and she had to put him in a nursing home with the little money we could scrape together. Then our daughter, Kendra, got diagnosed with some disease they didn’t even have a name for yet. We joked about it at the time. We called it Kendraitis – Paxton came up with that one. Sometimes Paxton would say, “This year is out to get us.” And sometimes it did feel like it was. At the time, I thought it would be the hardest year of my life. We all stayed awake for the ball drop this time. Even our mutt Sasha stayed up, laying apathetically on Paxton’s lap. We all needed this: a brand-new year. I know it’s technically just the changing of a single digit on the calendar, but that one digit gave us hope.
I bundle up my coat and sling a green Adidas duffle bag over my shoulder. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, mentally preparing to face the windy tundra of a New York winter. The streets are barren, as they have been for weeks. But I know that’s no reason for complacency. One wrong step these days and everything is over.
This New Year’s Eve was the first one we’d all stayed up for. Kendra was still coughing, sniffling, and pounding medicine to get through it like a trouper. I asked her more than a few times if she wanted to go to bed. “It’s okay if you want to get some sleep,” I said. “You could use the rest. Besides, there’s always next year.”
But she knew something I didn’t. Each time I asked, Kendra would sniffle, offer a soft smile, and shake her head. “No, I’m okay. I want to stay up with you and Mommy.”
I open my eyes, then step over the vines and mold breaking through the tile floor and head for the door. Before I push it open, I catch a glimpse of my translucent reflection in the store’s front window. It makes me stop and step back to examine a man I hardly recognize. I stroke my unkempt brown beard covering my thinning face. This is probably the first time I’ve ever seen my cheekbones so prominently and it’s a little disturbing. I shake my head, and push through the doors out into Times Square. Maybe M&M’s World still has some food.
At around 11:45, Paxton and I were buckling over with laughter as we watched Anderson Cooper’s drunken slurring: always reliable entertainment. Kendra wasn’t really interested in this part and wanted to watch a movie or one of the New Year’s Eve concert live streams, but Paxton and I weren’t about to miss this intoxicated rant for anything. I looked over to see Paxton wiping tears from her red cheeks as Sasha looked up to her with a tilted wet snout. I watched Paxton and Sasha and my laughing began to subside. I tried to remember the last time I’d seen her so happy. I couldn’t.
My teeth chatter as the howling wind seems to ignore my jacket. I look down and check it for holes, but there aren’t any. I dig my hands into my pockets and think of where I could find a good pair of gloves without plucking them off a body. I look down at a man who looks about sixty, but with the bloating around his neck it’s impossible to tell. He has a thinning hair line showing the top of his head that might have shined in the sunlight if it were livelier skin. His hands are fat and looking blue and I think I see something crawling underneath his red sweater. The sweater has a smiling cartoon reindeer on it that I catch myself staring at for too long. I wonder what his New Year’s Eve was like. I wonder what he was hoping for this year. Maybe a resolution to find a wife, be a better father, get that new job, promotion, gym membership…so many possibilities. This fate was surely not one of them. I step over him and think about how I used to feel terrible about stepping over them. But the more you do it, the number it feels.
Kendra jumped up when the countdown started. She was so excited that her cough seemed to stop for the first time in weeks. Maybe this really would be a great year. Everyone in Times Square turned towards the glittering crystal ball perched high above the crowds. Even Sasha could sense there was something going on and started wagging her tail, eyes darting between the three of us for some kind of cue. The cameras focused on the ball. We watched on the edge of our seats. It was that sense that some magical sheet of fortune would blanket the world when the countdown hit zero. We believed it not because it was logical, but because we needed it to be true.
I walk south down Broadway past the Winter Garden theater. I look up at the dilapidated sign, remembering how Paxton and I went on our first date there. It was around fifteen years ago when we went on that dinner and Broadway date our mutual friend set us up with. The play was Beetlejuice the Musical and Paxton told me, on our first date mind you, that she used to have the biggest crush on Beetlejuice when she was young. And even though it was our first date, I couldn’t not make fun of her for that one. “Beetlejuice? Really? That guy gives most kids nightmares.”
“No, I swear. I even told my mom I wanted to marry Beetlejuice one day. You get it, right? That sexy pale complexion. Baggy eyes. He’s irresistible.”
“If that’s your type, you’re going to love me,” I said. I’m smiling thinking about the date, but it quickly turns to heartache. I’m not only remembering my first, but my last days with her too.
Suddenly, a croaking moan rides the wintry wind down toward me. It almost chills my skin more than the weather does. I’m not alone.
The ball clicked and we only moved closer to the edge of our seats. I could feel the edge of the couch jabbing into my hamstrings. Sasha jumped down and let out an ear-piercing bark. “Good girl,” Paxton said. “You are so excited for the new year, aren’t you? Aren’t you?” Sasha wagged some more and Paxton stroked her floppy ears. The giant crystal ball on the TV whooshed and clicked as it began its lengthy descent from the half-minute marker.
The man on the TV narrating the countdown spoke. “Get ready. Grab someone you love. Grab someone you know. As we get ready to celebrate here in Times Square. Look at the clock. We are now at thirty seconds.” The ball sparkled and glowed and the crowds’ volume began to rise. A certain envy I’d never felt before for the Times Square spectators overtook me while I watched them sport their big 2022 glasses and shake their long blue and yellow balloons, screaming at a falling ball. My nose itched and tears welled behind my eyes. Good riddance, 2021, I thought. This year is going to be different. Much different.
I unsheathe my sixteen-inch serrated bowie knife, still stained with the blood of my last assailant. It’s the one my dad used to bring hunting with him back in Nebraska, but he hardly ever used it. I spent hours trying to wash the knife after its first kill, but the blood doesn’t really ever go away. I readjust the duffle bag so it’s secure behind my back, then wrap my gloved fingers tightly around the knife’s handle. The scream rings out again. The sound echoes off the skyscrapers and zips over the wind all at once. It’s impossible to tell where the screams are coming from. All I know is that the creature is getting closer.
Something sprints across the street behind me with that dreadful all-fours scamper I’ve grown too accustomed to. I hear its bare feet and hands slapping against the pavement. Before I can fully turn around, it crashes through a storefront window. My teeth are chattering more now. I can’t tell if it’s because of the cold or the fear or a nightmarish concoction of the two. For a few moments, whatever smashed through the glass doesn’t move. I pray to God it’s already dead, but then I hear pieces of broken glass shuffled against the ground.
“People are ready for 2022,” the TV continued. The crowd grew even louder. Kendra raised a forearm to her mouth and started coughing again.
“Are you okay, sweetie?” Paxton asked.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Kendra said. But for the first time I noticed her eyes were red. And it wasn’t only her eyes: her lips were dried and her skin was covered in goosebumps. Kendra stared at the floor with her hands on her knees for a few seconds, focusing on her breathing. But when the countdown officially began, she perked right back up and joined in. The ball flashed with each tick and boom on its journey down into the new year.
“Let’s get ready to count together,” the reporter said.This was it. I could hardly contain my excitement. Ten seconds until the new year. Ten seconds until this horror show was behind us for good. “Ten, nine…”
I jump back as another, but softer groan comes from the store. It’s still alive. The creature grabs onto the shards of glass on the window sill, and begins to stand up. As it does, I notice pieces of blue-tinted glass sticking out of its soft skin on its bare pale stomach. It’s entirely unfazed.
It itself upright and its absent eyes finally find me. I recognize the creature from somewhere. That’s right: it’s that cashier from the bodega we always used to go to. I tighten my grip around the knife’s handle even more.
I’ve only ever faced two people before who I’d known in the old world – two people I loved. But they’re not the same anymore. I have to convince myself of that.
Its body rolls forward and focuses on me the best the infected can. Snot and saliva drip from its face and it bares its pointed teeth at me.
I notice those red eyes – the same color Kendra’s were. I wonder if there’s still a brain behind them – something that still recognizes the world it once knew. What’s left of that bodega cashier hunches over and places its palms on the ground. And then…it begins to charge.
I stare at it and think about how I’ll time my swing as it prances towards me. If the timing isn’t perfect, it’s saliva might get on me and end this drawn out life I’ve been fighting for. It plants its wiry fingers on the yellow hood of a burnt-out taxi cab and sneers at me once more before breaking into a leap. Its arms are extended at full length now, baring those curling sharp claws right at my face.
I sidestep for a better angle just before it slashes at me. I raise the bowie knife above my head, grit my teeth, then grunt as the knife drops towards the path of the creature’s neck.
The cashier’s head thwacks into the ground and rolls back towards the taxi until it settles against its nose. The body thuds separately to the pavement beside me like a sack of potatoes. The severed face stares at me with snot covering its dried lips that will remain forever open, as if it died from shock. I can’t blame it really. This is the reality whoever’s still left lives in now. The year we all waited for, but the one none of us were ready for.