“Ian, get your ass up,” a voice hissed and cut through the screaming ringing in my ears.
The all-too-familiar nightmare that plagued me every time I slept dissolved and my eyes popped open. My hand slid under my pillow to grab my gun as I was greeted with the sight of a boot hovering over my chest.
I shoved the foot away, sat up, and placed my gun in the holster around my chest. “What do you want?”
Margarette’s scarred face twisted into its usual expression of bitchy annoyance. “Move.”
If it’d been four years earlier, I’d have told her to stuff it and get the hell away from me, but I didn’t have that luxury anymore. No human did. We had to take what we could get, even if all we were offered was someone with a lousy attitude and entitlement issues. At least she was a crack shot and knew how to set traps for game.
I yawned and ran fingers through my disheveled, choppily cut hair. Emma had tried her best, but she was far from being a hairstylist—not that it mattered much to me. The uglier I looked, maybe the safer I would be.
“Aren’t you supposed to be on patrol?”
Irritation shadowed my words.
“I’ve been up for hours and feel like I’m about to pass out. I want to sleep.”
“It hasn’t been eight hours yet.”
I wanted to kick myself. I’d been stupid to agree to take the patrol shift after her.
Margarette shrugged. “Close enough.”
“I hate you,” I muttered as I rose to my feet. I stretched until my back popped, then I slipped on my hole-riddled jacket.
Margarette hopped into the spot I’d left. She snuggled with the pillow and clamped her eyes shut. “Oh, poor baby.”
“Did you wake Edward up?”
“He’s been up. Reya went into labor in the middle of the night, and he’s been by her side like a dutiful husband should be.”
No help there, I thought and frowned. Yay for another day of working by myself.
I sighed. At least Edward had a legitimate reason. I couldn’t ask the guy to miss the birth of his child. I wasn’t a dick like some people.
“How’s it out there?”
“Nothing has changed in the shithole we know and love.”
Margarette made loud snoring noises.
I glared at her and wondered if I could rid her of her horrible nature with a single look. I’d been trying for the past two years with no luck. Maybe it took something stronger, like fire.
Gazing at her, I guessed someone had already tried that by the state of her face. At one point in time, she’d been a gorgeous girl. She had the body of a goddess and the brightest blue eyes I’d ever seen that complimented her high cheekbones. Despite the lack of hygiene we all suffered from, her golden blond hair was long and thick and had never been touched by Emma’s clumsy, well-meaning hand.
The twisted map of damaged, bumpy skin that started at her neck and stopped just above her eyebrows distracted from her appealing qualities. The strange black-red color of the scars looked otherworldly, and I suspected they’d been delivered by non-human hands.
Margarette presented a sad sight that made her demeanor much harder to deal with.
I left the living room of the house my group had claimed as our own a week and a half ago. My shoes left imprints in the mountain of dirt that remained even after Emma’s attempts at cleaning the carpet. Dust swirled up into my nose and mouth, and I sneezed and gagged. I hurried into the kitchen as I struggled to breathe.
“Here,” Annie said as soon as I entered. She held out an opened bottle of water.
I took it and sipped, and in seconds got myself under control. “Thank you,” I muttered when I could talk.
Annie waved a wrapper in my face. “Want the other half of my breakfast bar?”
I shook my head and downed more water.
“She’s really loud.”
Annie spoke while nibbling on the food I had declined. She ate like a starving, nervous bird, complete with the shifting gaze and hunched back.
Annie’s sapphire blue eyes shifted to the ceiling. “Reya.”
“Well, she is trying to push a potato through a straw. I’m assuming that’s quite a feat.”
“If it takes much longer, Reya won’t see the sunset,” Annie said with such conviction I had to wonder—and not for the first time—if she could see into the future. It freaked me out the things she blurted, especially when her eyes glazed over, and she shook as she uttered her words.
She wasn’t doing that now, thank God for small mercies. I never handled her ‘episodes’ well.
The loudest scream of pain I’d ever heard shook the walls of the house. A cheer followed that, and the tense look Annie wore fell off her pinched, pixie-like face. I could almost see a weight lift from her shoulders.
“Do you think Reya will let me hold the little girl?”
“It’s a girl?”
Emma hadn’t mentioned that, though maybe she hadn’t thought I’d care about the gender of Reya’s baby.
“Yes, it’s a girl.”
“Good for Reya.”
“Will I be able to hold her?” Annie repeated, her tone almost angry.
I shrugged. “Maybe.”
I lied. I knew full well Reya would never let Annie around her baby. There was something wrong with Annie. I didn’t know her life story, had never asked. It wasn’t my place to make her relive whatever horrible things were in her past, the awful things that made it so she only slept for a couple of hours every few days.
But those things had made the girl (she couldn’t be older than fifteen) unstable, and if I were Reya, I would be afraid of Annie dropping the baby or leaving it somewhere and forgetting.
“Baby girls are so sweet… so special.”
Annie’s gaze had turned soft. A smile turned up her chapped, blood-caked lips (Emma and I had tried everything to make her stop biting them) and a sigh left her.
I gazed, surprised to see her so happy. What did she remember?
“Yeah.” I coughed. “Well, I’m going to go on patrol. You… find something… you know.”
“You’re never careful out there.” Annie’s expression crumbled back into the one I’d come accustomed to seeing on her face for the past year. “You don’t do things to jeopardize us, but you aren’t careful.”
“I’m careful enough.”
Annie closed the short distance between us and reached out. For a fleeting moment, I thought she would hit me (though she was incapable of swatting a fly), but she grabbed the chain around my neck and tugged the tiny pink plastic ring I always wore out from underneath my shirt. She fingered the ring and tears welled up in her eyes.
“You won’t solve anything by being reckless.”
My heart thudded as I tore the ring out of her grasp and returned it to its spot. “I’m not trying to solve anything.”
“Ian, antagonizing them won’t—”
“I’m leaving,” I announced, and not-so-gently moved her out of my way. “Tell the others when they come down that I’m going to bring home food. I don’t know what it will be, but we’re running low.”
I started for the back door.
“Wait, Ian. I’m coming with.”
I stopped mid-step and whipped around to face her. “Excuse me? No, you’re not.”
“I have to come with you today.”
Annie shrugged. “I just have to. You need me with you.”
“You can’t even shoot a gun!”
“Please, Ian. Trust me, you need me,”
I opened my mouth to disagree, but something kept me from saying anything. What if this was one of those times she was right? What would I do if, by some miracle, there came a time when I was out that Annie would come in handy? Did I really want to risk whatever unpleasant things could happen if she wasn’t around?
And, besides, even if nothing out of the ordinary happened, she could help carry whatever supplies I found.
I relented. “I’m in charge. Whatever I say goes, and you will stay beside me at all times. Do you understand?”
I’m going to regret this, I thought.
I opened the back door and gestured to the outside. “Come on.”
Annie scrambled past me. “You won’t regret it.”
I stared at her a minute. This was a terrible idea. I should make her stay. It would be better —
“Are we going?”
I sighed as I repositioned my gun. “Yeah.”
I followed her.
The early morning sky was just starting to turn a baby blue as Annie and I cut through the backyard, crawled under the fence, and strolled into the adjoining lawn. I stepped lightly, alert as I searched for resting snakes.
Annie walked like a drunken buffalo and had her head turned up to gaze at the thin clouds. Twice I had to steer her away from tree branches before she tripped over them.
“Pay attention,” I growled as we reached the back street. “I won’t keep you out of all the potholes, and I sure the hell won’t carry you back to the house if you sprain your ankle.”
Annie sighed. “Okay.”
She seemed disappointed as she forced herself to stay focused on what was in front of her.
A soft breeze ruffled our hair, and I stopped a moment to sniff. Good. I smelt nothing odd; there were no traces of other people. That didn’t mean they weren’t here, though. The town we were in was small, but there were many places for a group or two like mine to hide out in. Yes, Edward and I had searched every inch of the town and had found nothing, but that had been five days ago. Who knew how things had changed since our last sweep?
I shuddered at the thought of running into another group of people, of another scenario like Waterchall. With Annie and the new baby, there was no way we would come out of a fight with other people victorious. We barely lived through the last confrontation when it was just five of us.
My head swiveled back and forth as I kept my eyes peeled for any signs of not only humans but the demons that had made the earth what it was today. The number of them had dispersed since they first crawled out of Hell that late November night, the day after Thanksgiving (it seemed cliched that the end of the world had happened on Black Friday). I don’t know where all the demons had gone to, not that I complained.
I could be anxious about the ones that remained, but in four years I’d discovered many ways to kill them. It wasn’t as hard as it at first had seemed.
Shame you didn’t know that when —
I cut off my internal voice. I didn’t want to go there. Not today.
Couldn’t I go one day without thinking about her?
It was a beautiful late summer day. The morning was brisk, but the temperature was rising. The trees we passed were just starting to turn a rainbow of colors, the barest hint of fall. Jane would have loved to see the leaves, would have loved to dance around in this weather; her favorite time of the year.
She would do that right now if you hadn’t messed up, my internal voice snipped before I quieted it again. It’s your fault she’s in that unmarked grave. You failed her. You promised you would protect her and less than forty-eight hours after you made that vow she died.
I tried, I answered with my pathetic rebuttal. My hand touched the bump where the plastic ring was—Jane’s cheap, plastic ring; the cursed token that reminded me of my little sister.
Uh-huh, my inner voice responded.
I couldn’t lie to myself. Yes, I’d only been fourteen when the biggest mistake of my life had happened. And, yes, I’d been as scared and confused as the rest of humanity, but I should have known better than to leave Jane by herself, even though I’d only been gone for a few minutes. Even though I had left to find her stupid pink ring, something she just hadn’t been able to move forward without. I had seen what the demons were capable of when they’d slaughtered my father in front of me, and I shouldn’t have been so naïve to think they wouldn’t find us in the woods; that they would overlook a ten-year-old girl.
My eyes clouded with tears as the last image I had of my sister flashed through my mind. She’d been in so much pain as she had screamed my name, and I’d just stood there watching the two horrible monsters torture her as she fought for her life.
Oh, had she fought, kicking and scratching with everything she had. Jane had been so brave until one demon had snapped her neck.
With their fun gone, I’d hid until they scrambled off. With numb fingers and bleeding nails, I’d dug Jane a shallow grave, kissed her cold forehead, and then had prayed for God to take her soul and cherish her as I’d lowered her corpse into the grave and covered her.
“Ian,” Annie whispered.
She touched my arm and brought me back to the present.
To the lonely, guilt-filled present.
I wiped at my face. “What?”
I willed my emotions to go back into the locked box around my heart and met her worried stare as expressionless as possible.
“There is forgiveness in accepting your past.” Annie sounded wiser beyond her years.
“We’re taking too much time.”
I picked up my pace, left the back street, turned onto the town’s main one, and walked down the middle of the eroded road.
Annie chased after me. She wheezed as she tried to catch up.
I took pity on her and slowed my steps.
“I upset you. I didn’t mean to.” Annie coughed. “I thought I was helping. You looked like you were in so much pain. I only wanted to make it stop.”
“I’m fine.” I spotted a small grocery store we hadn’t raided yet. “Over here.”
I pointed at it as I dodged a rusted car parked in front of the building. The owner probably had gone in to get eggs and milk and had instead got torn to shreds by a demon.
I stopped a few feet away from the building and pulled a jar of vapor rub out of my pocket. I opened it and picked up a glob with my finger. I turned to Annie.
She eyed the yellow goo. “What is that?”
“It’s vapor rub. I’m going to put it under your nose.”
“There are things in the store that have been allowed to fester for years. It won’t smell pretty in there. The vapor rub will tone down the stench.”
Annie allowed me to smear it above her lip.
I put some under my nostrils, capped the jar, and placed it back in my pocket. I started for the store’s broken door. Even before I reached the threshold, a wave of rotting revulsion crashed into my nose, and I gagged.
Annie stepped up beside me, and her breath caught. The next moment, she doubled over and lost her breakfast.
“I’m okay,” she whispered when she was done. She straightened and wiped at her mouth with the sleeve of her shirt.
“It helps to hold your breath and breathe through your mouth when you need to,” I said, and did as I instructed as I entered the dark store.
It wasn’t as destroyed as most the other places I’d gone into for food, but it still looked bad. Some shelves had been knocked over. Boxes of cereal and crackers had been opened, their contents spilled all over the floor; molded and dust covered. The two cash registers were opened and broken on the floor. Glass that I couldn’t find the origin of scattered the ground like confetti.
I grabbed two baskets, gave one to Annie, and then worked my way through the messy maze before me. I ignored the many rats and bugs scurrying around as I picked through the unopened packages down one aisle. I only found two sleeves of cookies and a box of fruit drinks I placed in Annie’s basket. I moved down the shelves with a prayer I’d find more. My measly discoveries would hardly be worth it if that’s all I brought back to the house.
“Can we… take… this?” Annie held up a can of corn.
I nodded and continued my search.
Over the next twenty minutes, we came up with three more boxes of cookies, a few energy bars, a container of military-grade powdered milk, and four cans of fruit cocktail. I sighed at our haul. It wasn’t terrible, but someone would have to go out tomorrow for more.
We couldn’t keep doing this. Sooner than later, we needed to set up permanent residence somewhere. Maybe on a tiny farm, one with a garden. It wouldn’t be that hard. Not with six capable hands.
“Let’s try someplace el—”
Annie’s head jerked, and she looked out the dirty storefront window. “Do you hear that?”
“She needs us!”
Annie dropped her basket. It fell to the floor with a loud thud, but Annie didn’t pay it any mind as she raced for the exit.
I took off after her; left my basket of food behind. “Who?”
The rest of what she said was lost as she left the store and took off down the street.
“Get back here!”
Her tiny form kept running away from me.
I groaned and removed my gun from its holster.
Ohhh, fun start!
I loved this. Going to have to go read more!
Raw and honest
I enjoyed how realistic and gritty this submission is. I felt like I knew the characters and their connections to one another instantly. Great work!
This is strong writing. The…
This is strong writing. The pacing is very good and I love how you drop in a little backstory here and there. I couldn't wait to read on with this one.
This story is unfolding in a way that allows us to get to know the characters and provides great foreshadowing.