Water was the first to go. The bureaucrats tried to keep everyone calm by declaring it a simple organism that needed to be filtered out. The faltering electronics would be restored as quickly as possible with the cooperation of the American people.
People believed them. At least, they pretended to. They preferred to go along with the blatant lies because the alternative was much worse. They had seen what was going on in other countries. France was in flames, Dubai in shambles. Brazil was bombing their own cities. People couldn’t even help themselves.
Water was where it all started. The catalyst that was the beginning of the end. When the virus was contracted people regurgitated any liquid they consumed, leaking precious water through their pours and bowels and any other place nature deemed useful. If someone could survive a week they lived, but most died within days.
In the aftermath friend turned on neighbor, and blood was answered with death. Soon all that was left of humanity was chipped sidewalks and empty highways. Nick used to tell her if she ever got close to a city she would be able to smell it: the stench of rotten flesh left to fester in the elements.
What a bunch of shit.
She didn’t believe her brother one bit. She couldn’t even comprehend the stories of people trusting strangers. It was a concept so foreign that she wasn’t able to wrap her head around it.
“How did people trust one another?”
In her world trusting strangers meant she had nothing to lose, and she was far from that.
Nick shrugged, peering at her as the morning light meandered up the decrepit walls covered in flimsy wallpaper. They were yellowed with age, wilting towards the floor how flowers did in the blistering heat.
“I did it. I remember having friends.” His stomach growled ravenous and he rubbed it absentmindedly, “and never being hungry.”
Sophie snorted, leaning back with a scoff and shaking her unruly mane with the flick of her head. The past was for fools, trusting the way they did. It was probably the reason they were all dead. They had no common sense.
Sammy watched her in silence as he raked in her features. His dark hair glinted in the summer rays, almost the exact same shade as hers. Their daddy used to say they could pass for twins if they weren’t the opposite sex. “Don’t you want more than this?”
Her brothers shared a weighted glance, directing their gaze to the surrounding four walls. Pictures of people she’d never known had once rested on them, but they had long since been taken down. Her grandparents grinning faces were as foreign to her as her own mother’s. The woman had died birthing Sophie and was reduced to stories. On the quietest of days her eldest brother Nick would tell her mom would have loved to meet her. They were words that meant everything to her brother and nothing to her. Her mother would always live in the shadows.
Sophie gave them an impish look, squinting as her lips curled with the barest trace of amusement. “What else could I want? I have food and water, a safe place to live. I don’t need anything else.”
Thoughts swam across Sammy’s face as fluid and paper thin as the petals that floated from the cherry blossom tree. Catching those petals was a skill she had yet to acquire. She didn’t think she ever would.
“It’s okay to want more. I want more.” Sammy leaned closer, balancing his weight precariously on his knees to get a better look at her.
Sophie shrugged unbothered. “I guess I could want to be less tired, but that’s a waste of breath.” Wanting wouldn’t make it go away. Sophie was only interested in things that were concrete, unlike the damned petals. She did not deal in wishes and miracles, because wishes and miracles were called that for a reason.
Sammy sighed his favorite sigh. The one he gave her often and told her he had given up on her. “You don’t get it.” He snapped a branch into pieces and tossed it into the fireplace. “Aren’t you ever lonely?”
“I have you and Nick.”
She peered between the dark tendrils of her hair towards her eldest brother. He had remained mute the entire conversation, not that it was odd for him. If anyone in this family liked their silence it was him.
“Don’t you want to see other girls? People your age?” Nick tried, sharing a weighed glance with Sammy. One she could not understand.
“I have Samuel,” she offered.
Sammy rolled his eyes. “I’m older than you, and I’m definitely not a girl.”
Most the time she forgot her body was different from theirs. That hers could bring life and curved in strange places that had no room in this world. Sometimes when she looked at the reflection staring back her body felt foreign. She wondered if all girls looked like her underneath the layers of grime and drooping fabric. She’d never seen another except when dead and she wasn’t going to go poking around then. She may kill, but she did have some morals. Best to bury them and be done with it.
“Why does it matter? Are girls any better than boys?” If girls were like her then they all would be good at shooting, but she didn’t think it worked that way. Otherwise, killing would be a lot harder and she’d have more scars to show for it.
This time when Sammy and Nick locked gazes they both smiled boyishly, those secrets dancing in their eyes that perplexed Sophie.
“Never mind.” Sammy announced it as if the answer didn’t matter when he had been pushing so hard for it mere seconds ago. Sometimes her brothers were strange.
Sophie stood up, rubbing her hands against her pants to get the dirt off them and shouldering her gun. It was never too far from her. It felt like it was a part of her, an elongated limb that stretched father than the other but much more lethal.
She had been shooting for as long as she could remember. Before people bore her mark, the forest creatures were the ones that felt her metallic wrath. Daddy used to take her out just the two of them and give her pointers. Those memories were some of her most treasured possessions. The quietness of the forest, the softness in his eyes as he watched her.
She missed him.
But daddy had been dead for nine years now and there was no point lamenting on what had been. She would never get him back and that was that. “I’m going check the traps at the lake.”
Sophie knew they heard her. Sometimes answers were darting eyes and a stillness that hung in the air much like the decaying, threadbare curtains. She hummed beneath her breath as she made the short trek. It was a tune she could recall hearing and thought sounded pretty although the words had long been erased from her memory. Not that she would ever admit she found it beautiful. Samuel would never let her hear the end of it.
She climbed up a tree that looked sturdy enough to bear her weight, searching the edges of the pond as she sought out any telltale signs of danger. The pond was low ground, dipping into a valley that held no cover. It was better to get the advantage while she could.
She paused, noticing a trio of people slightly to her right. Next the boulder she used to jump off during the summers when her father still lived. There was a woman and two men. The girl stared miserably at the ground. One of the men picked his teeth with a fish bone that had come from her fish taken from her pond. The last man sat near their makeshift fire, studying the tree line much like she was.
Sophie knew he wouldn’t see her. They never did. She was too quiet. Her clothes blended too well with her surroundings. There was a reason things like the pink of the cherry blossom did not fit in her life.
The man said something to the girl and he didn’t seem to like her response much. It resulted in him wrenching her by the hair and her shrieking as he shoved her face in the dirt. The man with Sophie’s dead fish cawed at the two, slapping his knee with glee. He laughed and laughed and didn’t stop laughing until his life’s blood bloomed across his chest like the buds in spring. The last man let out a startled yelp, scrambling to grab his weapon. He was dead before he could touch the cold steel of his handgun.
The girl let out another shriek that had Sophie wincing as she scrambled up the steep slope to hide in the safety of the forest. Sophie reloaded with nimble fingers and shot her between the shoulder blades. A perfect kill.
When Sophie made it across she kicked at a boot. Gun Man was bigger than she realized, but her brothers always teased her for being small. She cocked her head much like she watched the wild dogs do before deciding the boots would do. She pulled them off the dead man without hesitation. He wouldn’t need them anymore, and Sammy kept growing.
She grabbed the gun, a handsome revolver which she shoved through one of her belt loops. The other man had a crude bow and arrows. Then she went to the last one, the girl in the flowing grey dress. Sophie thought it might have been white once upon a time, but she wasn’t so sure. She shifted the girl around, noticing she was fairly pretty all things considering.
Blonde hair that streamed around her like the sun’s rays and lips that were soft and pliant. There was a scar just below her eye as if someone had hit her good there and split the skin, but the wound was old and the cut had healed light. It was then she noticed all the bruises dotting her arms, the wring of blue around her neck and the dot of blood at the corner of her mouth. She wondered what Gun Man had been doing to make her sit as lifeless as she was now.
Sophie kicked her worn boots in the mud, scuffing up dirt and rocks as she went to pilfer through their meager belongings.It didn’t matter anymore. The dead were the dead and there was nothing for it.
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