The most challenging Drawtober pictures were ones that featured already existing characters. Am I going to write a Bob's Burgers episode, or an homage to Donnie Darko? Not quite. This drawing allowed me to make good on a little idea I've had for a long time: a story set in a movie theatre at the dawn of the apocalypse.
They’re still trying to catch their breath when they take their seats. The theatre is empty. It’s an old building — Toby’s grandpa has reminisced more than once about the “nickelodeons” he used to see here — and practically soundproof. They can’t hear if they were followed, or who might be outside.
There’s no one in the theatre. Toby had a key. He’s been manager now for three weeks.
“Who the hell were those guys?” Kim asks. “Did you see — ?”
“Yeah,” Toby says. “I saw.”
He doesn’t want to admit yet what he’s ninety percent certain of. It doesn’t seem possible. This is the kind of thing that happens in the movies he shows here, in this very theatre. Up in the projector booth, Dawn of the Dead is on the reel, ready to flicker its way across the blank screen. It’s the Scare-o-Thon, brainchild of his boss, Mr. Harker; they do it every year. This year’s theme? Zombies.
Toby lets loose a laugh that borders too closely on the hysterical.
“Hey,” Toby says to her. “You okay?”
“She hasn’t said a word since those guys —”
“Don’t say it,” he cuts Kim off.
“Say what? That I just saw four guys in Adventure Time costumes tear Bart Simpson’s arms off and eat them?”
“Fuck!” Jules says. She’s drawn her knees up to her chest and started to rock back and forth. Her bunny ears tremble.
Toby can’t help it; he has to smile, looking at her. He also can’t help the pride and strange sense of satisfaction that wells up in him. He was the one who noticed the Adventure Time guys first, and he was the one who had snatched Jules by the back of her shirt and whispered in her ear, “Run.” If it weren’t for him, they’d all be — well, who could say? Dead? Undead? He has no way to know what they're dealing with yet. Only that there are things out there, things that tear people limb from limb and eat what's left.
Jules sniffles, and Toby sees that she's crying.
“Hey,” he says.
She shakes her head, and her bunny ears wobble wildly.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I just —” She falls silent, shaking her head again.
“I know,” Toby says. He can’t quite bring himself to put his arm around her, even though this is a movie theatre and if there's any best time to make a move like that, it has to be in a dark movie theatre at the dawn of what could very well be an apocalypse.
Kim stands up, tears the glasses from her face. They're fake; she only wore them for the evening, to complete her Tina look. She throws them to the ground.
“For fuck’s sake,” she says. And storms up the aisle.
“Where are you going?” Toby shouts after her.
She lets the door to the lobby swing closed behind her.
Toby sits back in his seat, his arm brushing against Jules’s. It's almost like the date he never got around to asking her on. But tonight was never a date. The three of them had agreed to go to the Halloween party at the Rec Center together. Come as your favorite cartoon! the flyer had instructed, and they’d barely even discussed it. After all, they watched Bob’s Burgers every Sunday together, cramming for Monday morning classes during the commercial breaks.
Jules pushes her ears back and rubs her eyes. Toby has to smile again. She hadn’t been able to find the right ears for her Louise costume, but leave it to her to take a can of pink spray paint to her Frank mask from last year’s Donnie Darko party and call it good. When she pulls the mask down over her face, it looks like an Easter-themed Frank is trying to eat Louise’s face off.
The notion of someone eating someone else’s face makes Toby’s stomach drop.
“Toby?” Jules speaks up.
Her eyes are huge, and they tug at him, begging him to know what to do in this situation. To be the hero.
“Wait right here,” he says.
He passes Kim in the lobby, where she's trying to raid the snack bar. “Everything’s locked,” she complains when she sees him.
Toby produces his key ring, a bulky thing he initially balked at — how could he be expected to keep so many keys on his person all the time, as Mr. Harker had directed? (“You never know when there might be a movie emergency!” the old man had claimed; for once, he hadn’t been wrong).
Now, Toby selects the snack bar key and unlocks the glass case with a flourish. “All yours,” he says, and Kim dives in, grabbing Reese’s and Mars bars by the handful.
Another key lets him into the upper reaches of the theatre, and a third key unlocks the projector room. He turns the projector on, readies the film, moves about the room almost automatically — he’s been working at the theatre since he was thirteen, back when all Mr. Harker would let him do was sweep floors and count the inventory. Once the film is running, he stays in the projector room long enough to make sure the picture is synched up with the sound, then he descends the stairs.
“They don’t build ’em like this anymore,” Mr. Harker has said more than once of the Palladium, and it's true. The new 16-screen theatre out by the mall has a glass facade that lets the daytime sunlight stream into the lobby. The Palladium has no windows, except two tiny portholes in the grand-entrance doors — thick doors, and heavy, and wide, meant to make coming inside the theatre an experience, which it would have been, back in the day when Toby’s own grandpa forked over his nickel and lined up to see the latest cliffhanger. The Palladium, Mr. Harker had claimed, could probably withstand a bombing or an earthquake, its walls were so sturdy.
Toby draws close to the doors, which he’s made sure are locked. He has to stand on his toes to see what's happening outside.
When he sits down next to Jules again, he's shaking. His hands tremble so hard, he dropped his keys half a dozen times on the way back to his seat.
“Everything okay?” Jules asks between handfuls of peanut M&Ms.
She seems calmer. Normal, almost. On the other side of her, Kim is contentedly nibbling on a Mars bar. Up on the screen, Stephen and Francine have already decided to steal a helicopter to escape the city overrun with zombies.
But there are no helicopters. There’s no help coming, Toby knows, and no escape. There’s only this theatre, the Palladium, and its thick walls separating them from what he saw in the streets of the city, through the window, tonight.
“Everything’s fine,” he says, and takes the Snickers she offers him. They sit in the flickering light, watching actors flee a horde of monsters, while outside, the world crumbles.
Toby slips his arm around Jules without even thinking about it.