I should’ve just left her in front of that burned up heap of a house. I was only looking around for some food, maybe water too if I was lucky, I wasn’t looking for another chore. Not after what happened. I can’t go through that again. I bring my hand to my face to wipe the sweat from my brow only to be stopped by my mask.
“Right, the mask,” I think as I drag myself forward, hopefully towards the supplies we need. The buildings I pass aren’t in much better shape than the building I managed to drag “what’s her name” into. I scavenged most of these husks anyway. “I don’t even know her name,” I think stumbling forward before quickly catching my balance again as I head for the somewhat intact building down the road. Even if I wanted to bring her with me she wouldn’t be able to walk very long without needing to stop, only serving to slow me down. I don’t know why I even try anymore.
I put my thoughts aside as I approach the most likely building to still have usable supplies in it. I keep my body low to the ground the closer I get, learning my lesson from the last time. The windows are boarded up and the door is still closed giving me a glimmer of hope that there are supplies still inside. I carefully pull off my pack and set it quietly in front of me unclasping the top as I do. I dig passed my various supplies before my hand hits the crowbar I was looking for. I easily pull it from the pack with practiced movements as I carefully bring my pack back to where it belongs. The door looks sturdy but with a swift and powerful kick to the frame it falls off its hinges like cardboard. The walkway is pitch black, as though there was a black hole trapping light at the end of the hall. I move silently, a skill that came with endless hours of practice, through the desolate rooms opening the few drawers I come across. The only things of value are a dead flashlight and an unused band-aid.
“Damn it!” I yell, kicking over the only upright chair I’ve come across. Everything is either broken or already gone. It’s better to keep what you have to yourself rather than share it with someone only to have them try and take everything. In anger, I slam my foot down on the floorboards, only to have my foot go through them and into the surprisingly empty space below.
“What in the hell is this? Normal people wouldn’t have this kind of thing in their house. At least not the people I used to know,” I mutter to myself reaching for my trapped appendage.
I should have given up after the third pull, but stubborn me had to do it without using the crowbar. Now my pants are ripped and I’ll have to get a replacement pair. If I can’t fix them I don’t know what I’m going to do. Hazmat suits are harder to come by than food is at this point. It makes me long for how the world used to be, if only for a moment. Even after all of my work I still have to use the crowbar to get free. In one swift movement, the crowbar is in its place, and with another my foot is free. The space below the floorboards is small, but from what little I can see, it’s just big enough to hide something important. Without a working flashlight, however, I have to go in blind. Without hesitation I reach below the boards, carefully running my fingers over the hard surface that lies at the floors true bottom. There’s a film of dust the coats my fingers in just one pass of the space.
“There has to be something in here,” I think as I lower myself to the floor, sticking my whole arm through into the small space. I strain the limits of my reach as I desperately search for… whatever was put down here. The glimmer of hope I have is crushed when my fingers brush the edges of the small space, nothing impeding their path. Whatever was down here, if anything, is gone and has been for who knows how long. I slam the palm of my hand to the floor and push myself upright with the force of my furious anger at the world. Everything turns out like this given enough time. Never once has anything ever been even close to easy for me. Not once! Not when I lost my job and my landlord kicked me out onto the streets, and not when the world went to shit. The sunlight is harsh and blinding as I storm out of the building and towards other prospects.
“I didn’t give up then and I’m not going to give up now,” I seethe, practically stomping my way towards another dilapidated husk of a home.
The next three buildings go worse than the first, containing nothing of value, fixable or otherwise. The three after that don’t go any better. Before I know it the sun is going down and I’m forced to make camp between two of the more intact buildings. Unlike the others I passed today, these two don’t have chunks of steel and concrete teetering precariously out of their broken windows threatening to fall at any given moment. I don’t light a fire, given that I don’t know who’s out here and that there’s no firewood just lying around. With the sun gone there’s nothing to keep the temperature from falling. I position my sleeping bag behind an old dumpster, hoping that if anyone does happen to cross my path they won’t be able to see me. Even with the thin fabric beneath me, the ever present pressure of the crisp dirt makes its way to my back. The cold is an oppressive darkness that looms in the corner of your mind. You know it’s there but there’s always something more important to deal with. Nowadays it is only about food and water, maybe even shelter if you have that luxury. I find myself curled into a tight ball, it’s the only way I can fall asleep anymore, I feel too exposed otherwise thanks to what the world has become. As my mind settles so does my anger, leaving me with a feeling of defeat. Before long the day catches up with me and I lose the fight to stay awake.
The sun is blinding and it’s constant rays boil me from the inside out. The store was picked clean like I thought it would be, but I had to give John the benefit of the doubt. I left him at the house. I trust him to keep our place safe. I pick up my pace, desperate to get the sauna that is my hazmat suit off when I’m safe.
The door has been kicked off its hinges and John isn’t outside waiting for me like he always is. I run up the two steps that separate John and I, his name on my lips. I take in a breath to yell for him when I hear it, an unfamiliar voice, a stranger. Everything swirls around me as though I was the epicenter of a whirlpool. It all moves at blinding speeds like memories drifting through a mind. Then it stops and I’m tied up on the ground looking across into John’s worried hazel eyes. A rough hand grabs at my back forcing me to roll painfully onto my tied hands, John’s yelling at whoever it is to stop, but they don’t. They pull me closer forcing my body to bend unnaturally.
“My name’s Hunter little miss and I’d be ever so honored if ya’d tell me yours,” Hunter smiles at me, his rough voice seeming out of place with the tone he’s used. I part my lips to speak but a soundless whisper is all I can muster. I don’t have the strength to answer. It doesn’t matter anyway, John’s yelling at him again. His smile drops as he forcefully throws me to the ground and I make the mistake of letting a whimper get passed my lips. John’s yelling only intensifies at this development, spit flying off his lips with the sheer force of his boiling rage. I can only lay back and watch as hunter delivers kick after kick into John’s torso, cutting off his yells mid-sentence.
“Please stop,” I plead, finding the strength to use my voice. Hunter listens, but I wish he hadn’t. He comes over to me now a sickening smile plastered on his disgusting face.
“You know what? I think I will,” he taunts before delivering a well placed kick to my ribs.
I bolt upright flinging my back into the dumpster with a resounding clang. My breath is gone, stolen by the memories that plague my dreams every night. A sheen of sweat lingers on my skin, the fabric of my clothes stick to it like glue. I bury the memory, unwilling to think about what happened next, unwilling to acknowledge it ever happened.
“I can’t stay here. I need to keep moving,” I breathlessly whisper, as I desperately try to untangle myself from my sleeping bag. My hands are a blur as I move hastily, folding the thin fabric and forcing it into my pack, before I manage to control my breathing to acceptable levels. The buildings and the alley are far behind me when I finally manage to put that memory in the back of my mind, drowned out by my swift footfalls as I forge ahead. At night the world seems safer, easier to handle, but it’s not. There are things, animals in a past life maybe, now monsters that roam the more populated areas looking for what they need to survive. They were most likely radiated by the bombs, but I can’t know for sure. The only thing I know is that if one ever finds you, your chances for coming out of the encounter alive are slim. My pace slows as an unwelcome memory makes its way to the forefront of my mind.
The smell is putrid. It clogs my nose and threatens to gag me with every breath. It let’s out a monstrous growl as it steps forward. John’s in front of me with his arm outstretched. It’s a flimsy barrier that won’t stop it when it lunges but he’s always been the protector, my protector . It might have been a coyote, but with its fur gone, burned away by things I don’t think I can handle, and limbs contorted in such a manner that I’m surprised it can still move; there is no way to be certain.
“I’m going to distract it and when I do you need to run,” John commands, his voice no higher than that of a whisper.
“I can’t leave you here!” I exclaim, barely managing to keep my volume low.
“You have to.” John sighs nudging me back with his palm. “I have to make sure you’re safe. I can’t do that if you’re here with me. With it.” He sounds resigned. Like he knows he’s not going to get out of this, like he’s okay with that fact.
“Promise me.” I blurt out taking a step back. “Promise me that you will fight. Promise that once I’m gone you won’t just give up. Promise that you’ll see me again,” I plead latching my hand onto the back of his hazmat suit.
He broke that promise. I ran until my legs ached and my lungs threatened to give out, and I collapsed by a sturdy oak tree. I waited there until the sun came up and went down again, until I wasn’t sure I was safe anymore. I had to leave. I hadn’t eaten in days and I drank the last of our water before the sun went down in the sky. I left little arrows in the dirt for him to follow, but after a week I knew he was gone. I come to a stop and look up at the moon, allowing myself a moment to remember him. A moment to remember what made John…..well John; a moment to be happy. And then it’s gone. My feet are moving and the thought of him is pushed to the deepest depths of my mind. I keep my eyes forward and fixed on the outlines of buildings in the distance.
“It’s not just me anymore,” I remind myself picking up my pace.