Donovan is just beginning to protest when the wall to our right, the last remaining barrier between us and the pursing Tank, suddenly buckles. Almost simultaneously, the floor boards separate from the base of that crumbling wall and the entire hallway floor settles downward by almost a half a foot. With a load crash, the roaring from the enraged tank seems to be coming as much from below us as to our right.
“It broke through the floor, Bill! That abomination is in the basement!“
“It’s tearing this place apart trying to get to us! I don’t think it’ll stop until it brings this whole building down!”
Frantically I look at the stairs. With the floor buckling beneath our feet, the entire staircase shudders as it begins to tear loose from both the wall and the second floor landing. To my horror, I see that many of the corpses ensnared in the barbed wire lattice have begun moving of their own accord. Startled out of their stupor, these zombies begin straining against their bondage to get at Donovan and me.
“We’ve running out of time!” I announce. I grab the closest futon mattress and heave it on top of the three writhing zombies entrapped at the base of the staircase. Their thrashing begins to dislodge the mattress. With no choice, I leap on, weighing it down upon the creatures until it too becomes ensnared on top of the barbed wire.
I turn to see Donovan, eyes wide in revulsion and shaking his head back and forth, slowly backing away from me and staircase.
“Donovan!” I say urgently. “I can’t do this myself! If you want to get out of here, I need you to grab another mattress and hand it up to me!”
At first I think I’ve lost him again to his own deluded world of inner panic. But once more, with agonizing slowness, Donovan gathers his wits, looks around furtively and spots a nearby mattress.
He grabs at it but then lets go. “It’s covered in - “
“- I don’t care what it’s covered in! Pick that thing up and get it up here! Hurry!”
Marshalling his nerve, Donovan hoists the futon mattress onto his shoulder and stumbles on the uneven floor towards me. Grunting with effort, he pushes the second mattress upwards. Grabbing it from above, I fold it as best I can, slide it into position above me and let it unfold onto more of the writhing zombies caught in the barbed wire. I claw my way upwards and onto this second platform, again driving the moaning zeds downward, anchoring the mattress on the barbs.
“I’m coming up!” Donovan announces, climbing onto the first mattress suspended below me.
“No! Donovan, listen to me. We’ll going to need at least two more to reach the top. Get one more mattress and then we’ll trade places, OK?”
Reluctantly, Donovan retreats off the staircase to retrieve another. The mattress underneath me, already undulating with the straining undead, lurches violently to the right as the entire staircase groans alarmingly.
“Hurry Donovan!“ The last tremor has knocked him off his feet. With maddening slowness, he recovers his bearings and staggers upright again, panting heavily, half carrying, half dragging the third mattress to the foot of the stairway. With a grunt he just barely hoists it halfway onto the first mattress, eight feet below me. Sagging against the base of our makeshift ramp, he looks up to me, dejected.
“We’re going to die here.” He announces in defeat.
“Listen to me, Donovan! You’re not going to die here! You said it yourself: God has a plan for you. I don’t know what it is, but it sure as hell can’t be that you’re supposed to throw your life away in this cesspit! Now grab that goddamn mattress, put your back into it and heave it to where I can reach it!”
At first, the only response I receive from this man below me is a withering stare. Then without uttering another word, he determinedly bear hugs the loose mattress, lifts it off the ground and backs away from the staircase. Another booming roar emanates from the basement below us and the floorboards beneath Donovan’s feet again buckle. For a second I think he’s going to fall again, but Donovan deftly sidesteps, recovers his balance and then begins staggering back towards the stairs, gathering speed.
Straining under the weight, he hits the base of the stairwell in something close to a run, lets out a primal roar and heaves the mattress upwards. It hits me mid chest, knocking me over. Donovan climbs up and actually reaches the third mattress from below before I manage to recover. Together we maneuver it into position above us. Another eight feet of crisscrossing barbed wire and two more hissing zombies lie between the edge of this third mattress and top of the stairwell.
Leaving Donovan perched precariously on the third mattress, I slide back down our makeshift ramp and land heavily onto the hallway floor, now tilting almost 15 degrees off horizontal. I have to stumble another 25 feet before I reach the closest remaining futon mattress. Rolling it into a cylinder, I hoist it onto my shoulder and awkwardly turn back towards Donovan. That’s when I see a massive fist, sheathed in bony plates and protuberances, smash up through the floorboards from below. A full three foot gap of floorboards falls out of sight, leaving a dark, yawning chasm between myself and the stairwell.
The Tank’s fist disappears into the blackness below. Mustering all my strength, I lean forward and begin staggering towards the stairway. I reach the gap and leap, with no clear opinion on my chances of carrying my burden to the other side. My trailing foot leaves the near edge of the chasm just before the Tank’s two massive hands reach up and grasp the splintered edge. I land on the other side, stumble once and then ram into the base of the first mattress, heaving my burden towards a gasping Donovan 10 feet above me.
I glace behind me and see our nemesis draw itself up over the edge of the hole it has just opened up from below. Clawing madly, it begins to climb up out of the basement. It’s facing away from us, trying to climb up towards the opposite end of the hallway.
Donovan has slid half way back down and grasps the fourth mattress from above. With me pushing from below, we haul it up to the top of our ramp.
“It’s already stuck on the barbed wire!” Donovan calls down after we’ve pushed it just a half a foot beyond the top of the third mattress.
“Work your way back down to me! We’ll stand it up from below and flip it over.”
Working together, we lift the lower edge of this last mattress and flop it up and over the remaining zombies, now thrashing wildly trying to extricate themselves and attack us.
Again the entire stairwell lurches to the right and I look up to see the top tread and riser begin to tear away from the second floor landing. Only a few groaning boards still connect the top of the stairs to the next floor.
“Move, Donovan! Move your ass!” I roar, slapping him firmly on his rear. With the stairwell now swaying alarmingly from its last few points of contact above, Donovan clamors up and over the splintered edge onto the second floor landing. I’m only three feet behind him, but just as I’m reaching up towards his outstretched hand, the last of the stairway gives way. Suddenly the mattresses, the writhing zombies, the lattice of barbed wire and all means of support drop away beneath me and with it, I feel myself begin falling downwards.
In desperation, I flail about with my right hand above my head. My hand slaps against one of the balusters of the banister encircling the second floor stairwell. Grasping madly, I manage to get three fingers and my thumb around the thin spindle of wood, my pinky smashed painfully against the edge of the floorboard. I can feel my grip slipping.
I want to heave my opposite shoulder higher and grasp my left hand, but I can feel the sudden movement will pry loose the tenuous grip with my right. I’m just looking down to judge where I might fall when I feel Donovan’s fingers close tightly around my trembling right hand, securing my grip. I look up to see he’s kneeling on the other side of the second floor banister, squeezing my right hand around the baluster with all his might.
“Bill! There’s no way I can reach up over the top of this railing and haul you up!”
My reply is a grunt. With my right hand grip secured, I kick with my legs and swing my upper body to my left. Lunging, I grasp another baluster firmly with my left hand. Kicking again in the opposite direction, I swing my right heel and hook it onto the narrow ledge of floorboard running beneath the balusters.
But that’s as far as I can get. I cling in that position, trembling as I feel the strength in my arms waning.
“Dammit Bill! Don’t you dare let go!” Donovan commands as he releases his death grip on my right hand and stands up, quickly bends over the top of banister and horse collars me on the back of my army jacket. Straining together, I work my grip higher on the balusters until I can get first one, than both knees onto the narrow ledge and haul myself, sweaty and exhausted, up and over the railing.
We land on the other side of the banister and collapse onto the floor, panting uncontrollably. Staring up at the darkened second floor ceiling, we hear that the timbre of the shuddering below us has changed, along with the volume and direction of the roaring. We sense that the Tank has extricated itself from the basement, but has momentarily lost track of us. And in its rage, it has obliterated the only easy way to follow us up to the second floor.
I gradually become aware that Donovan’s panting has morphed into hoarse laughter.
“What’s so goddamn funny?” I demand.
“You,” Donovan replies, still chuckling. “Now I even got you talking about God’s plan. Maybe there’s hope for you yet, Bill.”