If I Could Talk I'd Tell You
Carmen’s feet pounded on the crumbling asphalt in rhythm with the pounding of her heart. The cold air stung her lungs as she ran after Debbie through the dark streets of the city. Hulking shadows of abandoned homes and businesses flew by, silhouetted against the surrounding trees by the dim yellow glow of the streetlamps. The forgiving darkness hid the wounds on the decaying city like a heavy black veil.
“There,” Debbie called over her shoulder, swishing her long black hair. “We can hide out there.” She pointed at a squat brick building straight ahead.
Carmen regarded the building and frowned. The front wall was almost entirely plate glass, and a flickering neon sign by the door proclaimed “FRESH BAKED OODS DAILY.”
“The bakery?” Carmen said. “It’s too exposed. There’s glass everywhere. Sam’s sure to find us.”
Debbie hit Carmen on the back of the head. “Glass makes it easy to break into, you dumb shit.”
“Plus it looks like it’s still in use,” said Carmen. “The owner might show up to bake doughnuts in the morning.”
Debbie hit her again. “Then we’ll leave in the morning. We have to hide now. Sam’s gaining on us.”
They ran up to the front door and peered through the glass, their faces illuminated by the soft orange light of the neon sign. The outlines of tables and chairs were barely visible in the dark room, lit only by a fluorescent light mounted inside the long glass display case against the back wall.
Debbie pulled down the frayed sleeve of her flannel shirt to cover her hand and punched the glass door. The glass shattered into hundreds of tiny shards that glittered in the faint light as they fell to the floor. The shrill sound of breaking glass pierced the silent night air and echoed off the walls of the decomposing buildings. Carmen flinched and glanced over her shoulder at the empty street.
“It’s coming!” a booming voice suddenly shouted. “Judgement day is coming!” The old man appeared, carrying a sign made from a grease-stained pizza box. “THE END IS NIGH” was scrawled on it with a black Sharpie. His pale blue eyes were milky and lined with dark red veins. His nappy white hair hung over his shoulders, and his equally nappy beard streamed down his chest, partially obscuring his torn gray sweatshirt that read “AL” in plain block letters.
Debbie sighed. “Not now, Crazy Al,” she whispered, waving the old man away.
Al thrust his makeshift sign at Debbie. “They imprison and torture innocent people to exert their power!” he shouted. “They use us as slave labor to manufacture weapons for their endless wars! They can take anyone at any time! Even you!” He pointed a shaky finger at Carmen.
Carmen shushed him. “Yeah, yeah, we know,” she said, nudging him aside. “It’s the end of the world as we know it. You tell us every other day.”
Al raised a fist in the air. “In the last days perilous times shall come!” he shouted. “Men shall be lovers of their own selves! Covetous, proud, without natural affection, despisers of those that are good—”
“Fuck off, Al!” Debbie hissed, shoving him into the street. “Go preach somewhere else!”
Al waddled away, bellowing, “It’s coming! Judgement day is coming!”
“Crazy old fart,” Debbie muttered. She reached her sleeved hand through the door and turned the lock. The door fell open with a rusty creak. She turned to Carmen and smiled. “Open fucking sesame,” she said.
They stepped inside the bakery, bits of glass crunching under their feet. Debbie pointed at a door labeled “PRIVATE” at the far end of the room. “In there,” she said.
Carmen followed Debbie into a small wood-paneled storeroom lit by a single lightbulb dangling lopsided from the ceiling on a thin wire. Debbie slammed the door behind them and the bulb swung back and forth, flashing around the storeroom like a strobe light.
“We can’t stay here,” said Carmen. “Crazy Al basically announced our whereabouts to the whole city.”
Debbie steadied the swinging lightbulb with her sleeved hand. “You got a better idea, smartass?” she snarled, narrowing her deep blue eyes.
Carmen wiped the sweat from her forehead with the sleeve of her denim jacket. “There’s an abandoned movie theater not too far from here,” she said. “I don’t think anyone’s been inside for decades. It’s pretty isolated. I’m sure we could hide out there undetected for a while.”
“I think I know it,” said Debbie. “On Bleigh Street?”
“That’s the one,” Carmen replied. “It’s probably a ten-minute walk from—” She jerked her head toward a muffled rustling. “Did you hear that?”
Debbie nodded and pointed at a narrow door on the other side of the storeroom. They crept toward the door and Debbie yanked it open, slamming it against the wood-paneled wall with a loud crack, leaving a doorknob-shaped scuff on the wood. The space behind the door was pitch black.
“Find the light switch,” said Debbie, feeling around the dark walls.
Carmen reached up and felt a string hanging from the ceiling. She pulled it and a yellowed light bulb clicked on, revealing a cramped cupboard. The shelves along the walls were packed with paper packages of flour and sugar, cans of condensed milk, and bottles of vanilla extract.
Curled up in a corner of the cupboard was a small figure with ivory skin and curly brown hair. She sat with her knees pressed to her chest, staring up at Debbie and Carmen with impossibly big brown eyes that seemed lit from within under the yellow light.
Debbie grabbed a handful of curly brown hair and pulled, lifting the figure up. She looked down at her and frowned. “It’s an imperfect,” she said.
The imperfect stood at about the height of Debbie’s chest. On her right wrist was the telltale gray bracelet that imperfects were required by law to wear. The big red button in the center gleamed in the light as she clawed at Debbie’s hand on her hair.
Debbie laughed. “Guess we don’t have to worry about her telling Sam where we went.”
“Yeah,” said Carmen. “Imperfects can’t talk.”
“She probably doesn’t even understand what we’re saying.” Debbie looked down at the imperfect and grinned mockingly. “Do you, you sneaky little bitch?” she said in a high-pitched, singsong voice.
Debbie released her hair, and the imperfect fell back onto the cupboard shelves, knocking over a brown paper bag that sprinkled powdered sugar on the floor like a light dusting of snow.
Debbie brushed the sugar off her frayed jeans and stepped out of the cupboard. “Come on,” she said, gripping Carmen’s arm. “Let’s get outta here.”
April leaned against the cupboard shelves, struggling to catch her breath. Powdered sugar had spilled over her shoulder and down the front of her T-shirt, painting a fuzzy streak of white over the navy blue fabric. She waited until she heard the jingle of the bell over the front door before she allowed herself to relax.
The bell jingled again, and footsteps moved across the linoleum floor. April turned off the cupboard light and closed the door, holding her breath as she strained her ears to listen.
“Oh my God!” came Cindy’s familiar voice. “What happened?”
April breathed a sigh of relief and stepped out into the bakery.
Cindy looked up from the broken glass on the floor. “There you are,” she said. “Did you do this?”
April shook her head.
Cindy dropped the bundle of brown paper bags she was carrying on the glass display case. She ran a hand through her graying blonde hair and a few strands came off in her fingers. She looked at April through narrowed eyes. “Come here,” she said.
Cindy brushed a hand across April’s shirt, peered at the white powder on her fingers, and licked it. “Powdered sugar?”
“What in God’s name have you been up to?” Cindy asked, staring at April as if she expected an answer.
April looked up at her with wide eyes and pouty lips, trying to look as innocent as possible.
Cindy blew up a puff of air that swept her wispy bangs off her forehead. “I don't understand why you would make such a mess,” she said. “You're usually so well-behaved.” She took the Remote out of her pocket and idly twirled it around in her hand. “Now I have to punish you.”
April stared at the Remote and held her breath.
Cindy studied April’s face, chewing her lip. Eventually she sighed and put the Remote back in her pocket. “Get a broom and clean this mess up, then get back to the house and start dinner. I'll deal with you later.” She pulled a bottle of bourbon from one of the paper bags, twisted off the lid, and took a swig.
April stepped toward the storeroom, then paused as Cindy spoke again.
“And I want you to clean the bathroom again tonight,” she said. “Do it right this time. Last time the grout was still dingy. You need to get in there with a toothbrush and really scrub it.” She made a fist and twisted her wrist to demonstrate.
April took another step, then paused again.
“Do the laundry tonight too,” said Cindy. “I want all my shirts ironed this time.” She took another long swig of bourbon from the bottle.
April ran into the storeroom before Cindy could add another chore to her list. The bell over the front door jingled again. April pressed her ear to the storeroom door and listened.
“Hello,” said a deep voice.
“We’re closed,” said Cindy. “We open at five A-M tomorrow.”
“We’re not hungry,” said the voice.
Shoes shuffled and scraped across the linoleum floor.
“What are you doing?!” Cindy’s voice cried.
April covered her mouth to quiet her heavy breathing.
“Two women were in here earlier tonight,” said the deep voice. “Where did they go?”
“I don’t know,” said Cindy. “I just got here.” Her voice was shrill and unsteady.
“I suggest you tell me,” said the deep voice with a frightening calmness, “because if you don’t, Kenny here will slit your throat.”
“Please,” said Cindy, “I don’t know. I wasn’t here.”
“Who was here?” the voice asked, rising slightly in volume.
April’s heart pounded loudly in her ears, almost drowning out the voices on the other side of the door.
“No one,” said Cindy.
April breathed a sigh of relief.
“You’re lying,” said the deep voice.
April heard a twinge of cold amusement in those two words that sent a chill down her spine.
“What’s this, Sam?” came another, more gruff voice. “It was in her pocket.”
“Give it here,” said the deep voice.
April jumped as a loud, rhythmic beeping emanated from her bracelet. She backed away from the door and watched helplessly as the big red button flashed in time with the beeping.
“Go check it out, Frank,” said the deep voice called Sam.
“Right,” the gruff voice called Frank replied.
The door opened and a burly man filled the doorframe, blocking the light with his girth. A gray polyester shirt stretched over his wide chest, and a small patch that read “Industry Security” was distorted by his bulging right pec. He grabbed April by the arms and dragged her to the front of the bakery. “Look what I found, Sam,” he said, squinting his small gray eyes as a crooked grin spread over his square jaw.
“No one, huh?” said Sam. He was a thin, lanky man with skin so pale it was almost transparent, beady black eyes under thick black eyebrows, and a head of jet black hair parted straight down the middle. He smiled at April with even white teeth so perfect they looked artificial, but his eyes were blank, portraying no real joy. The Remote was in his hand, flashing and beeping in sync with April’s bracelet. He pushed a button on the side of the Remote, and the flashing and beeping stopped.
“Leave her alone,” said Cindy, her eyes darting wildly between April and Sam. “She’s just an imperfect. She can’t tell you anything.”
Another burly man in a gray shirt held Cindy. He had a round, ruddy face with wet red lips that were set in a straight line as he pointed a knife at Cindy’s throat.
Beside Sam, a shapely woman with strawberry blonde hair pulled into a shockingly tight ponytail scanned April with deep set hazel eyes. Her thin lips stretched into a wide smile, revealing a splotch of red lipstick across her front teeth. “Ooh, she’s cute, Sammy,” she said. “Can I keep her?”
“Not now, Crystal,” said Sam, waving dismissively. He turned to Cindy. “Try again. I want the truth this time. Where did those two bitches go?”
Cindy sniveled and sobbed. “I don’t know! Please! I really don’t! That’s the truth!”
April tried to pull away from Frank, but he wrenched her arms behind her back and held them tightly in his meaty hands.
Sam tilted his head to one side and shrugged. “Kill her, Kenny,” he said casually.
“No.” The word escaped April’s lips before she could stop it. Her voice was faint and hoarse like a distant radio station playing through a haze of static.
Everyone looked at her with wide open mouths and even wider eyes. Kenny’s knife froze over Cindy’s throat.
“Don’t kill her,” said April. “I know where they went. I’ll tell you.”
“Well, isn’t this interesting?” the woman called Crystal said in a squeaky childlike voice. Her smile grew wider, crimping the fine lines around her eyes and mouth.
Sam grasped April’s chin, lifting her face to his. “Did you just say something, imperfect?”
April tried to swallow but her throat felt like it was lined with sandpaper. “Yes,” she croaked in a harsh tone that was barely above a whisper.
“What?” said Sam, leaning closer.
April thought absently that his face was fairly handsome despite his cold, dead eyes. She cleared her throat. “Yes,” she repeated a little louder. “I said I know where those two women went.”
Sam and Crystal smiled at each other.
“I’ll tell you if you let Cindy go,” said April.
She looked at Cindy and Cindy stared back at her with tears streaming down her face, smearing her mascara in black streaks along her cheeks.
“OK, imperfect,” said Sam. “You got a deal. Tell me where they went.”
April shook her head. Sam’s face darkened and he dug his fingers into her chin, sending a sharp pain down her neck.
“Let Cindy go first,” she said.
Sam turned to Kenny. “Kill her,” he said.
April struggled against Frank’s hold on her arms. “No,” she said. “Wait. Please.” She felt tears making their way to her eyes and fought to hold them back.
Sam raised a hand to Kenny. “Well?” he said.
April took a deep breath. “They went to an abandoned movie theater,” she said. “It’s on Bleigh Street. They said they were gonna hide out there for a while.”
Sam stared into April’s big brown eyes without moving or blinking. April stared back, struggling to keep her composure.
Slowly, the joyless smile returned to Sam’s face. “Good girl,” he said, patting her head as if she was an obedient puppy.
“Now let Cindy go,” April said, keeping her eyes trained on Sam’s pale, emotionless face. “That was the deal.”
Sam turned to Kenny. “Kill her,” he said.
“No,” April gasped, trying to pull free of Frank’s grip.
Kenny’s knife flashed under the fluorescent lights as it swiped across Cindy’s throat. A dark red line formed along her neck, then blood poured out of it like water from a faucet, soaking her green uniform shirt and covering the words “Ferguson Bakery Fresh Baked Goods Daily.” Kenny dropped her and she crumpled to the floor. Blood pooled around her head and slowly spread across the linoleum. Crystal stepped back just before it reached her platform shoes.
April’s knees collapsed under her. Frank jerked her up and tightened his grip, pulling her arms painfully from their sockets.
Sam looked down at April and grinned, displaying every one of his dazzling white teeth. “Now what do I do with you?” He ran a hand along her cheek and across her lips.
Crystal smiled beside him. Her tight ponytail tugged on her pencil-thin eyebrows, making her look permanently surprised. “Ooh, Sammy,” she said, clapping her hands. “Let me play with her. I’ve never had an imperfect before.”
Sam laughed humorlessly. “We’ll see, Crystal,” he said, keeping his eyes on April. He handed the Remote to Frank. “Put her in the trunk.”
As Frank dragged her through the door, April kicked backward as hard as she could, striking both his knees with a loud crack. He groaned and released his grip, dropping the Remote. She grabbed the Remote and ran down the dilapidated sidewalk, gasping in the cold night air.
“Get her,” came Sam’s voice from behind her.
April heard Kenny’s heavy footsteps thumping on the pavement behind her. She quickened her pace, pumping her legs as fast as she could. The footsteps grew louder and louder until she was knocked to the ground and Kenny was on top of her, his considerable weight crushing her slight frame against the sidewalk. He twisted her right arm behind her back and she dropped the Remote. She swung at him blindly with her left arm, striking the side of his face. He twisted her right arm harder.
“Keep fighting and I’ll break it,” he growled.
She fell still. Kenny dragged her back to the front of the bakery and handed the Remote to Sam. April kicked Kenny’s shins and tried again to free herself from his grasp. Kenny twisted her arm harder.
“I told you what would happen if you kept fighting,” he hissed into her ear, so close that she could feel the heat from his breath on her skin and smell the garlic he must have had for dinner.
He twisted harder and the bones in her arm snapped with a sickening crack. She bit her lip to hold back a scream and collapsed onto him, breathing in ragged gulps.
Kenny pulled her back up. “Keep it up and I’ll break the other one.”
Sam smiled his joyless smile. “Naughty girl,” he said, clucking his tongue. He handed the Remote to Crystal. “How about you teach her a lesson, Crys?”
Crystal giggled with glee. She leaned over and looked into April’s eyes. “You take pain well, little one,” she said with a grin. “This should be fun.”
Carmen was awoken by a blazing bright light that filled the movie theater lobby where she and Debbie slept on the threadbare carpet. She opened her eyes to see that the snack bar was on fire. Yellowed signs bearing images of popcorn and candy crumpled and turned to ash. Ancient popcorn kernels popped inside the rusty red popcorn machine, bringing a brief burst of life to the dead theater.
A crash came from behind her, and she turned to find a row of payphones engulfed in flames. Their black plastic receivers melted and oozed onto the floor, leaving their crimped metal cables dangling like vines. The scuffed plexiglass partitions between them burst with loud pops. Posters on the walls for movies like Jurassic Park, Hocus Pocus, and Super Mario Bros. warped and bubbled, distorting the faded images as if they were being reflected in a funhouse mirror.
Carmen turned to Debbie and called her name. Debbie rolled over and mumbled something unintelligible in her sleep. Carmen shook her by the shoulder. “Debbie, wake up.”
Debbie’s eyes shot open. “Carmen, what the fuck?” she said, squinting in the bright light from the fire.
“The building’s on fire,” Carmen said calmly.
The surrounding flames reflected flashes of orange, red, and yellow in Debbie’s deep blue eyes as she scanned the lobby. “Shit!” she shouted. She ran to the entrance and peered through one of the doors. “Shit!” she said again. “Sam’s men. We’ll have to go out the back.”
They ran down a corridor to the back of the theater. Carmen closed her eyes as the heat from the flames kissed her face.
Debbie pushed at the back door but it didn’t open. She charged at the door, slamming into it with her shoulder. Again, it didn’t budge. She glared at it, rubbing her shoulder and cursing under her breath. “Open it,” she said to Carmen.
Carmen took a deep breath and leapt into the air, soaring and spinning like a torpedo, her hot pink fishnet stockings and black combat boots flying straight into the center of the door. The door swung open on its rusty hinges with an anguished wail.
They ran through the sleeping city and into the surrounding forest, where demolished buildings and neglected roads had become overgrown with vegetation, as if nature had taken the land back from the city. Their pace slowed to a walk once they were concealed behind the cover of the cedar trees. Carmen breathed in the fresh, woody smell as a chilly night breeze swept the smoke out of her lungs. The wind tousled her chestnut hair, sweeping it up and dropping it back down to her shoulders in thick, wavy tendrils.
Debbie spit on the ground. “Damn it,” she said. “How did they find us?”
Carmen shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Someone from that bakery must’ve told them,” Debbie hissed.
“But there was no one there except that imperfect,” said Carmen, “and imperfects can’t talk.”
Debbie punched her in the arm. “I know imperfects can’t talk, you fuckwit!” she snapped. “There must’ve been someone else there.”
“Oh,” said Carmen, rubbing her arm.
“We have to go back,” said Debbie. She turned on her heels and bolted out of the woods.
Carmen ran after her. “Why?” she asked breathlessly.
Debbie turned around and punched her again. “Don’t you listen?! Someone there ratted us out to Sam, and I wanna find whoever it was and kill them!”
“Oh,” said Carmen.
The front door of the bakery hung open and squeaked as it swayed in the night breeze. Debbie stepped inside and turned on the lights. Cindy lay in a heap on the floor in front of the counter, dried blood pooled around her head like a grisly halo.
Debbie stared down at Cindy’s limp body. “God damn it,” she said. “It must’ve been her.”
“I didn’t see her here before,” said Carmen.
Debbie raised her hand as if she was going to hit Carmen again, then lowered it and shrugged. “She must’ve been hiding somewhere, like that imperfect.” She opened the door to the storeroom. The dangling lightbulb was on and the room was empty. She peered inside the cupboard. “She’s gone. Sam probably took her to the Industry.”
Carmen felt an icy chill crawl up her spine and shuddered. “Yeah,” she said. “He probably did.” Poor thing, she thought.
Debbie kicked the wood-paneled wall with one chunky Mary Jane shoe. “Damn it! Tomorrow we’re shutting that place down!”
“How?” asked Carmen. “We’ve tried so many times and we always get caught.”
“We’ll go in through the old subway lines,” said Debbie, pacing the storeroom. “We’ll get people out that way.”
“We tried that,” said Carmen. “We got caught before we could get anyone out.”
“Well we’re gonna try it again!” Debbie snapped.
Carmen looked at Debbie uncertainly.
“What?” said Debbie, raising her fist. “You got somethin’ to say?”
“No,” Carmen said with a sigh. “Sounds like a plan.”