Chapter 1: Two beating hearts
They burned their parents.
Through the orange red fire the two of them saw what was left of their mother and father. They offered everything to the flames. The fire devoured them steadily along with the bed where they laid. Sparks flew and danced around the fire as the bed crumbled. The flame flickered and settled down.
The two were mesmerized by the fire's dance.
It would have been interesting if this wasn't a funeral.
Sasha was only twelve and Daniel ten, but age didn't become a reason for them to not survive without parents. It should not be a reason in the first place.
Sasha wrapped her arms around the boy as they both faced the brightness of flames. They did not know what happened; their parents would not let them know. Both their mother and father were adults and as adults they kept everything to themselves as they let their children lived the illusion that everything was fine. Even as Sasha asked about the wild animals in the woods, their parents' illnesses and the recent evacuation, neither parent gave any information.
"Everything is fine, darling".
If their parents were here then surely they would not have let their little angels watch the dance of the gluttonous fire as it devoured the corpse of two rotting humans. That was 'if' their parents were here, but sadly, the two rotting humans... rather... the two human-like shaped mound of ash were their parents.
Sasha made Daniel watch everything. With his own eyes, he saw them burn. He tried to turn away, to not accept this situation but Sasha whispered to him, "look, this is reality."
If their mother was here Daniel would not even know about the burning. Their mother loved Daniel and they were all aware of this. Daniel was her precious little heir while Sasha was born into this world to care for Daniel. They might have not said it with their lips but Sasha knew. She always knew.
Sasha was now in charge of this family and from that day on Daniel should keep up with her as her brother, and if she wanted Daniel to toughen up then he should see this funeral. Whatever Daniel would make out of everything depended on him; what he would become after this experience was entirely up to him.
The flames finally died. Sasha took the bucket of water beside her and doused the small remaining flames. She took Daniel by the hand and they went inside the house.
The house was their fortress. This was the only place they felt safe. They knew this house like the back of their hand. Even if they would be attacked they knew exactly how to defend themselves and where to hide.
The outside world was shut away as they retired in Sasha's room. Side-by-side they slept that night. Both were scared, waking up even with the slightest sound. Sasha would be up with her father's shotgun on her hand for even a small whimper in the wind. Daniel, who barely slept, would clutch her sister as his eyes scanned the room wildly.
Both did not breathe until they made sure that it is ok to sleep.
They were like this for many days and even more nights. They were scared to go outside during the day and frightened to go to sleep at night.
The world was dangerous and it would have been safe for both of them if they just stayed inside the house. Unfortunately, food was dwindling and so as their other supplies. If they wanted to survive they have to go out.
Most of their neighbours already evacuated. The disease, the same thing that ate their parents from the inside, already infected more than half of the village. Sasha assumed they were already dead by now. The doctors gave up hope. In fact the doctors, whom they had assumed would be everyone's saviours, were the first ones to evacuate. They left everyone here to rot.
The smell of the deceased already started to attract some wild creatures. Sasha and Daniel could hear them at night. They crashed inside the houses and ate what was left of their neighbours' corpses.
They weren't even sure if anyone knew they were still alive inside their humble and quiet house.
Sasha knew about his father's secret gun collection. She even went with her father more than once in the woods to shoot. She knew that he hid them under the third step of their staircase. That was the only step where you can lift the top wood to open and if you listened carefully to your steps the third one sounded differently from all the others. It amazed Sasha how her mother never found out about it.
Sasha decided to practice using that gun when they realized they only have two days' worth of food. Two days were already a long stretch.
The shotgun was too big for her and heavy that even something as simple as carrying it required a lot of effort. Her shoulders hurt every night from the burden of placing it there. She cried the night of her first shot. She was very careful in not making a sound so as to keep Daniel from waking up. Sasha's feet trembled as she aimed, it became even more unstable with every single shot and after recoil her body felt numb. And yet at the end of the day, she could not care about all that.
The very next morning she would do it all again.
Every morning she would wake up and practice, and every night she would count the boxes of cartridges while she cleaned the gun. Her father stored a lot of them and usually bought tons of them as seldom as possible. Gradually his collection grew from all those short trips they did under her mother's nose. It was thanks to her father's supplies that they were now safe for months.
Ammo was not their problem. It was food.
Sasha hunted in the morning. She went to the woods behind their house to shoot rabbits. She noticed that the animals she needed to fear only came at night. These creatures weren't satisfied with rabbits anymore and so these rabbits came out in the morning when they thought that everything was safe.
Sasha was anything but safe.
Two rabbits kept the two of them satisfied for a day and a half. She managed to hunt four rabbits that day. They could stay inside the house for three days and won't be hungry.
Daniel was in charge of refilling their water supply. It was very nice to know how their parents made sure that they were near a river. Daniel never saw it as luck. He trusted that their parents thought about it beforehand. Of course they never expected that all of this would happen but at some point they might have thought that they needed to be close to the river.
During these days Daniel and Sasha would wake up really early. They fixed everything the night before so they just have to get up and start the day. They both finished at twilight. If they would begin the day late then they would have to finish whatever they were doing and went back inside. They had to be inside the house before the dark night arrived.
Sasha and Daniel finished the day by making sure every single door and window around the house were locked tight. If they felt that their lock was weak they would add additional barricade to it. They took special attention to the doors and windows that they didn't use since these were the things that could easily slip from the mind and could ultimately cause their deaths.
Sasha took one of the rabbits as Daniel boiled the water. Sasha looked at her brother.
"Hey", she said clearly. "I haven't seen you cook something... ever."
Daniel smiled, "Because you're a greater cook compared to me."
Sasha thought that he was right but it wasn't the point she was making in the first place.
She went towards Daniel, knife in hand. Daniel wondered why Sasha was like this today. This was certainly the first time she did something like this.
Sasha took Daniel's hand and placed the knife on top of his palm.
"Cut it." Sasha ordered.
"Wha? What?" Daniel looked at his sister strangely.
"The rabbit. Cut it."
Daniel laughed. "Are you kidding? I can't possibl-"
"If something happens to me I want to die knowing that at least you could cook a rabbit. Now stop acting like an idiot and start skinning the rabbit."
Daniel realized that his sister was right. Of course, she always was. He held the knife carefully and stepped towards the table.
On top of their wooden cutting board, the rabbit lied there helpless and almost dead. It was still breathing. He saw the rabbit's tiny body rise and fall as it breathed erratically. After being knocked out by Sasha, its sleep was far from peaceful. Daniel pressed the rabbit down as the knife's blade positioned on top of the rabbit's neck. He had seen Sasha did this numerous times that he knew what to do. Back then he never thought that he would do it. He was in charge of their water and Sasha with food. That was how it usually was.
But his sister was right. He must know how to hunt as well. He must know how to at least hold a knife and how to use it.
His hands were shaking. He gripped the knife tighter. He felt his hand numbing and his knees weakening. His eyes blurred and he felt something warm running down his face. He blinked and realized that he was already crying.
Sasha's hand went on top of his.
"Stop shaking. If this rabbit was awake then it already escaped."
Daniel cried. Sasha was holding his cold hands as she constantly said the consequences if he didn't do this right.
"I can't! It's still breathing... I can feel its heart... i-in my finger." Daniel said between sobs.
"Yes of course. That's why we know it's still fresh. Now kill it and let's cook it."
Daniel spouted some other things but because he was crying Sasha didn't quite understand what he said.
Daniel cried and cried but Sasha still held on to his hand. Sasha guided his hand into slitting the rabbit's throat. Blood oozed out and Daniel cried even more.
"There." Sasha said coldly, "that's all there is to it."
Daniel cried, "I can still feel the heart."
Sasha heard his words clearly this time. She knew Daniel actually made an effort to enunciate his words properly. Sasha could feel that she didn't like this but she could not blame Daniel. He was always like this and she knew that it would turn out like this one way or another.
"Every pump of that heart, blood will come out. Soon, that heart will pump slower and slower... until it stops." Sasha looked into her brother's eyes, "that's how it dies. That's how everyone dies. Even you and me. If you want your heart to continue pumping then you have to let other hearts stop."
She made sure all her words were understood. She wanted him to understand it all. His life was at stake with every heartbeat.
"It's like we are taking their heartbeats."
Sasha gave a quick nod, "true. It seems that way."
"Isn't that unfair?"
"Because their hearts are precious as well."
"So? Would you give your heartbeats to them?"
Sasha lifted her hand and pat Daniel's head. "Now you skin that rabbit. I'm getting hungry."
Sasha left the kitchen quietly and went to the bathroom. Daniel looked at the rabbit. He breathed. If there was a heart that he wanted so much to keep on beating it would be Sasha's heart. Daniel looked at the direction where Sasha went. He looked back at the rabbit. If it's for Sasha and him, he didn't really mind how many heartbeats he needed to get. For Sasha and him. For Sasha.
Daniel slowly learned how to hunt. Sasha gave him his father's hunting knife and he practiced with that. He practiced throwing and cutting. The knife was heavy, hard and rough. It gave him bruises on his palm and soon his soft hands grew rough and calloused. His mother would have cried buckets if she saw this.
Daniel's eyes were as sharp as her sister. He could throw the knife and still hit a moving target. Sasha was more surprised on how fast and agile Daniel was. He was faster than his sister. Sasha would watch him from afar as Daniel ran and vanished in a blur. One moment he was there and then he's gone with a blink. Sasha didn't mind since she just needed to be bolted in one area and shoot from there. Daniel was the one running around and slitting the animal's throats. Sasha thought to herself: it was as if he's supposed to wield a knife.
Now, they separated water-gathering day and hunting day. They got more supplies through that method and they enjoyed both activities together. They also managed to get larger herbivores by working together.
As their skills grew their preys grew larger as well. They weren't satisfied with rabbits anymore. Being a predator changed them. They became more confident. They stopped fearing the darkness. They became faster, stronger, and deadlier.
Soon they learned to get out of the house at night.
Sasha and Daniel stayed closely together. Sasha's rifle was always at the ready alert for anything that could happen. They walked in the abandoned street side-by-side as their eyes scanned everything with every step. No one dared talk. They communicated by holding their hands tighter but mostly they talked with their eyes. Daniel was relieved that some of the streetlights were still working. The place would have been so dark without those. The houses around were all dark. There was no sign of life in each and every one of them. In dead silence, their hearts and breaths felt so dangerously loud. Each step was taken carefully and precisely; no one in front of the other.
So far so good.
Then Sasha heard something that made her stop in mid-step. Daniel felt it and removed his hand from Sasha's. He pulled a knife and braced himself.
From the curb in front of them they saw a man running. In only a few strides after him they saw what he was running from.
It was a beast bigger than both children. It was on fours with coat black as a moonless night. Its gleaming teeth were bared and looked sharper than Daniel's knives. Its breath rumbled from within silencing any other sound in the street including the children's hearts.
The man saw the children and headed towards them. The children didn't know what to do.
"Sasha. Shoot." Daniel whispered.
Sasha cocked her gun and shot the beast's leg. The beast tripped on its own leg and rolled.
The man went towards the children.
"Thank you. Thank you." He swallowed, "I didn't know that there are still people here." His words had a hard time getting out of his mouth as it prioritized getting air first but both of them understood him.
The beast howled and went back on his leg once more. Its eyes focused dangerously on the children.
"Looks like he's on to you now." The man smiled at Sasha.
He then ran towards one of the houses broke the door and went in. He hid behind the walls as he watched in terror what would happen to the children because all that time the beast was running towards the two.
Daniel grabbed Sasha's arm and yanked it.
"Let's go home right now."
Sasha then shot again. This time it was right in the beast's heart. The beast backed away a bit. Sasha loaded her rifle again and aimed for the beast's body. It breathed heavily and howled. It howled once more with a voice softer than before. Its breathing went heavier and heavier until it stopped. This time it didn't get up.
"It's alright now!" Sasha said to the house where the guy went in.
Daniel didn't like that guy. He could not understand why he was like that to them. He was a human as well. They could be friends. However, he used them as bait so he could run away. He attempted to steal their heartbeats so that he could keep his. Daniel wanted to go home. He didn't want to talk to that guy any more.
Sasha saw how Daniel wanted to leave and so they started to walk.
They heard another howl.
Sasha and Daniel looked at the dead beast. It wasn't it.
Then there was a howl overlapped by another. Sasha and Daniel went pale. There were two beasts.
The children started to run. They only reached one block when they heard another howl once more. Daniel looked behind and saw them emerging from the curb. They were dead wrong.
"Three." Daniel uttered.
Sasha glimpsed behind and cursed.
They were only a block away from their house when Sasha spun around.
"What are you doing?" Daniel asked.
Sasha shot a target. One of the beasts stopped. Another shot at the same target and it finally fell on the ground. But one of the two was dangerously getting nearer. Sasha searched her pockets. Her hands were shaking as she reloaded the rifle. She cursed when she missed the barrel. She closed the gun and looked up to aim at the beast.
But the beast was really near her. It then jumped to pounce on her.
Sasha's eyes went wide. She stepped back but she knew it was useless.
Suddenly Sasha saw another shadow pouncing on the beast. It was her brother.
Daniel rode on the beast's back. The beast jumped around trying to bite Daniel behind him but Daniel was moving around as well as his hands planted securely around the beast's neck.
Sasha stepped away from Daniel and the beast. She tried to aim for a spot where she could kill the beast and not hurt Daniel. She could not. She then heard the third one still coming at them. She knew where to shoot now. One shot was enough to blow away and kill the last one. She looked worriedly at Daniel trying to aim once more.
Daniel pulled his knife and planted it deeply onto the beast's throat. The beast moved wilder than before with howls so loud that it could ruin Daniel's ears. Daniel then pulled the knife to the side and blood followed his hands. He pulled out the knife and the blood gushed.
Daniel jumped away from the beast.
Sasha finally shot the rifle at the beast sending it flying away. She didn't even have to look at it. She knew it's already dead.
Sasha grabbed Daniel's bloody arm and ran towards their house. She kicked the door open and shoved Daniel inside. She locked the door and pulled down all the planks that secured it. She looked at Daniel who was now cleaning his hand on his shirt.
"Are you ok?" The boy asked.
"That guy will pay." Sasha hissed totally ignoring Daniel's question.
Their parents taught them how to be respectful and courteous to everyone. Their mother was a very religious woman who enjoyed going to church every week. Sasha and Daniel didn't care about those things. They enjoyed eating out after the religious ceremonies.
"Respect your elders. Love your neighbour." Their mother used to say.
But there was no love inside Sasha's heart the next night. How could she love someone who almost killed Daniel? Sasha didn't want vengeance; she just wanted to eliminate all possible dangers from their lives. That man was certainly classified as one of those dangers.
They hunted him and saw him living in a house four streets away from them. They were sure that it wasn't his house. One, they knew who lived there. Two, he was clearly raiding the place. Sasha only saw him as a scavenger and barely human. That was the mindset she needed if she wanted to execute her plans.
Daniel could not hear a single beast that night. He knew those were not all of them but at least they could go out like this tonight. He was scared when he heard of the plan his sister had but as he saw the look in her eyes he knew that there was no other way around it. Daniel didn't like him but he was still a human being. He even thought it was safer if they could all live and survive together, but he dared not speak those things to Sasha. Her sister saw the world as their enemy.
Sasha knocked. She mocked respect right in the face with such an act and she was proud of it. The door opened revealing the man that led those beasts to them. He looked surprised.
Sasha pointed her gun at his face. Her finger light on the trigger, ready to pull any time.
"What the fuck? You're still alive!"
"You dare speak like that even at gunpoint? Now I know why you survived." Sasha whispered darkly.
"What?" The man tried to say before he felt something leapt behind him and clung on his back.
Blood squirted from his neck spraying on Sasha's face a bit. She sighed and wiped his blood with her palm.
The boy jumped off the man and landed behind him. The large guy fell on the floor still squirming and squirting more blood. Sasha shot him on the head and he finally stopped moving.
Sasha looked at Daniel; there was annoyance on her face, "Fine. We won't eat him."
Daniel looked disturbed but listening to Sasha spoke of their earlier bet made him feel a bit better. This was the least he could do. Killing a man was one thing, but the thought of eating him made Daniel sick to his stomach.
The two children dragged the man's body further from their house until the edge of their town. Sasha took some rope from the house the man raided. They tied him to a flickering lamppost. Daniel made sure the knots were tight before they left to go back home.
It wasn't a funeral. Sasha needed something to lure the beasts away from their house. If this man could serve as a distraction for those beasts then she would not mind carrying him all the way here.
"Daniel, let's go. I want to eat deer tonight." Sasha called for him.
The boy looked at his sister. He took a final glance at the dead man before he went to her and held her hand.
The moment she touched him, she knew he didn't like what he did. His hands were cold and trembling. She held him tighter. She didn't enjoy it either. It was nauseating but she bit it all back. She needed to be strong for her brother.
She decided that night; no matter how cold and harsh it would be, no matter how dangerous it would be and no matter how much she hated it...
She would steal as many heartbeats as possible for him to stay alive longer.