The earth shook as the sound of thunder boomed through the night sky. Kayla catapulted up from her cot, sweating. The downpour leaking through her shoddy roof had soaked her blanket; one she and her brother had used for nearly two years. Two long years she'd been living in Fortaleza; a haven from the freakish creatures that were once human beings wandering the Graveyard beyond the rusted electric fence. The Graveyard was everyone's nickname for the territory beyond the few Sanctuaries strewn about the country.
Collecting her breath, Kayla rubbed her eyes. She'd only slept for hour, and now dawn was a few hours away. The thought of her missing brother Othello out in the Graveyard had been keeping her up for the past three nights.
"A raider got a shot off on him, and he fell into a river," she'd been told by Adrian, Othello's friend and fellow supply runner. "We never found him. The current must've carried him far out there."
She felt faint. "A – aren't there going to be any searches?"
Adrian shook his head, taking a few moments to piece together an answer. "Sorry... but one man isn't worth a search and rescue out there. He could be anywhere."
Kayla felt the wind knocked out of her lungs. Although it was not a new feeling, she felt herself on the verge of collapse.
"I'm really sorry," he said hesitantly as the last bit of blood drained from Kayla's face.
Nearby, the slum's inhabitants began to shuffle towards more appropriate shelter, dragging dozens of garbage bags filled with their clothes and canned food. But Kayla remained isolated from the rest, fishing out a raincoat from her own garbage bag and throwing it over herself.
She began to tear up again, despising the feeling of being left alone, especially in a world like this. The past three nights she'd been racking her brain, formulating some sort of escape plan from the Sanctuary. Digging under the fence, hopping over the fence, out through the guarded main gate...
If there was any chance he was alive, she was going to go look for him. She'd depended on her brother for so long that she couldn't imagine living without him. It was hard enough pre-apocalypse when Othello was sent to jail, leaving her behind after he'd looked after her exclusively for almost two years.
"I gave up my own future because I thought you deserved one," he'd always say. "Don't waste what I've given you."
The thought of entering the Graveyard for the first time since the initial outbreak when she was thirteen was terrifying, but she would rather risk her own life to find him than stay in the Fortaleza slums all by herself.
The main problem would be getting back. It'd be near impossible to return once she escaped. Sanctuaries, or at least Fortaleza, weren't in the business of welcoming outsiders. She doubted anyone knew or cared that she was even a resident here. If she found her brother, then maybe they'd be recognized and let back in...
But what if she didn't find him, and she was stuck in the Graveyard like she had been before she came here? She shivered, doubts creeping into her mind for the first time. It'd be radically different without anyone looking out for her.
However, it only took one look at the group of people huddling together under a small awning to revive her motivation. A few pushed and shoved, but most stood silently, pondering how they would get through the next week with enough sustenance. They shook from the cold, staring at the lone girl sitting under a pathetic excuse for a roof, arms wrapped around her legs.
How could she go through all that for the rest of her life, alone? If it was grim here, how much worse could it be out in the Graveyard?
That was it. She'd made her decision.
Taking a deep breath, she clicked on her dying flashlight and acquired the dull, rusted knife she'd bartered yesterday for a can of tuna. Hastily pocketing it, she pulled the hood of her raincoat and crawled out of her little box.
"You're doing this. You have to do this," she said, convincing herself.
With another flash of lightning, it was the perfect moment to act. The guards manning the towers weren't being paid enough to keep constant watch under such dire weather conditions, not to mention it was 4:30 in the morning. Instead, management let the electric fence surrounding the perimeter do its job. Besides, nobody usually wanted to flee the Sanctuary for the Graveyard. In fact, Kayla believed she was setting a precedent with her spontaneous decision.
Taking one last look at her sorry home, she slipped down an alleyway leading toward the gates of Fortaleza, leaving all her belongings due to the weight. Kayla would have to hunt for food and garments once she was out in the Graveyard with only her flashlight and knife. Being in the slum area, they lived closest to the perimeter. The drawbacks were the constant moans of any nearby zombies, and the fact that if the perimeter was ever breached, they'd be the first to spill their guts. That would give the wealthy living in the centre time to retreat into an emergency shelter at the heart of the Sanctuary.
Even with the world ended, humanity was still divided. There was still an economy running, with rich dominating the poor. They even had electricity, and better food. Most of them were well acquainted with Richard Penn, a former congressman who was now managing Fortaleza. Anybody who opposed were immediately imprisoned without trial. They weren't even allowed visitors.
Lost in her thoughts, Kayla realised she'd reached the main gate. As suspected, the watchtower was missing an occupant, leaving two large sets of electrified gates unsupervised. Beyond was an endless night with several groans echoing through the rain. They stopped haunting her as she grew used to hearing them nightly, but now they made her feel uneasy again. Maybe it was because she'd be within their reach soon enough.
She approached the tower, constantly scanning her surroundings, but no one was visible through the thickness of the rain. Her heart beat fast as she ascended the slippery ladder. It was a short climb, and within a minute she poked her head up to examine the tower interior. Her eyes widened as she ducked. A man was presumably sleeping on the ground. Swallowing, Kayla slithered into the tower, heart pounding.
The gate switch was right over his body. Drops of water slid from her coat, dripping onto the wooden floor. Her hands trembling, she reached for the switch just as lightning flashed. Below, the gates slowly screeched aside, revealing the entrance to the Graveyard. Inhaling deeply, she made for the ladder just as thunder rang out. The man snorted, rising from his slumber in a drowsy fashion.
Wide-eyed, Kayla jammed her feet on the ladder before he regained awareness. Skipping the last few rungs, she splashed onto a pool of mud. Ahead, she saw the gates closing. The man must've noticed.
With no time to reconsider her decision, Kayla hit the ground running. Behind, she faintly heard the guard calling for her to halt. She ignored his orders, bypassing both gates entirely just in time to trip and fall face first into a trench of sludge.
Spluttering, she shook her head and wiped her eyes. She'd taken her first steps back into the Graveyard, and she'd proven her incompetence already. A foul stench suddenly reached her nostrils. She turned to her left and saw something she hadn't seen up close in a long time; a stumbling zombie with its active jaw and outstretched arms.
Panicked, Kayla scrambled out of the mud to her feet. She'd exposed herself to the Graveyard once more. She sprinted hurriedly in the opposite direction. Running like the terrified and vulnerable girl she was... as far away from safety, and as far into danger as she could.