It was raining sending sheets of cold wetness over our shoulders and through our wool hats into our hair biting our scalps with ice. As much as I hated the cold, I appreciated it for it would cover our scent and would muffle the sound of our feet on the pavement and make it harder to see. We kept close against the wall in the alley, staying the shadows though the creatures we feared could see in any darkness as if it was clear as day.
Michael moved to the edge of the alley to see if the street was clear. I stood underneath the fire escaped we had climbed down and waited for his signal. While I waited, I made certain that my backpack was tight over my shoulders, but loose enough if need be I can slip out of it if it were caught or grabbed. My worn shoes had double knotted shoelaces and the soles were molded to my feet from constant use and wear.
The words kept repeating over and over in my mind, "Go in, grab, and go. Go in, grab, and go. Go in, grab, and go."
There was a little store down the street. Michael saw it from the upper floor and said that it looked untouched and that there could be a back entrance that we could use to get in. He had become quite skilled at picking locks over the last year and that was a skill that had saved our lives more than once.
He raised his hand motioning me to come. I stepped lightly avoiding the soggy and aged litter at our feet and stood close to his back. The street was clear and lined with abandoned cars we could use for cover. My hand tightened around the gun, knowing that it would be useful against the undead that roamed, but useless against the monsters that hunt. Michael went forward, his body bent in a crouch as he moved to the side of a car and followed its length. I waited until he rounded the front before I followed with both hands clutching the gun. I stayed at least one car length behind him knowing that he was making sure it was safe as he went. I moved when he moved and stopped when he stopped. He kept between the cars stopping, looking, and listening. By the time we reached the alley on the other side of the street, ten minutes had passed. Before the demons came, I could simply walk across in seconds. No, I tried not to think about before. It made me too sad and sick.
Michael was right. There was a back way into the store, but the door was locked. Michael drew out his lock picking kit that he kept with him at all times and went to work while I kept watch. It was early morning, but the things we fear were active at all times of day. The door opened with a creak that was all too loud for me and we hastened inside. Michael shut and locked the door behind us and without a word we looked around. I held my gun at the ready while he clutched his baseball bat in a tight grip. No one and nothing in here save for the rats that had come to get what old morsels they could claim. Our treasure was the canned goods that lined the shelves. Michael took watch while I filled my bag with cans of beans, peas, peaches, pears, and whatever I could fit in the bag, then I checked the old freezer that had long ago stopped working long ago and found several unopened bottled of water. I grabbed those as well even opening one to take a long swig. We had been running low on water.
I handed the open bottle to Michael knowing that his thirst matched mine. He drank and handed it back. I put the top back on and slipped it back into the bag and grabbed his to fill it up with more cans and water. I was feeling good for the first time in a long time. This was the most food I've seen in god knows how long. It was a wonder that this store hadn't been ransacked since the invasion. Now we just have to go back to our camp and we'll be set . . . shit.
Michael drops his hand in a quick motion as if slapping the air and I lie on my stomach while my blood curdled in my veins. Michael lowered himself and we both listen to the sounds of hooves on pavement. It was something worse than the undead. It was cruelty galloping up the street on horseback. I held my breath and counted. It was more than one set of hooves, maybe three or four. I lift my head while moving across the floor toward the window. My body is taut and as I gingerly move through the scattered cans and old food until I come to the door with a large rectangle window that I could easily peer out of without giving myself away.
I saw them then, the horse riders in their blacken armor astride horses with wounds that would never heal yet were strong to carry their armor wearing riders. I held my breath and watched them. They had slowed to a steady trot and among them lurking about their hooves was one those hell hounds as Michael had dubbed them. It roamed about on four legs with a set of long claws with a serrated tail. Its bulbous shoulders hunched as it sniffed the pavement . . . right where we had traveled.
I froze and prayed to God who had long ago forsaken us that the rain had hidden our scent. I couldn't understand them with their broken language that was guttural and ragged, but I could guess that they didn't like standing in the rain and were getting impatient while the hell-hound sniffed and pawed with claws that tore through the paved road and slashed the car tires. While I watched, for the first time I noticed that one of them had a figure across the saddle behind him. At first I didn't recognize it, but then as I stared my mind absorbed that it was a person naked and bound by rough black rope. The back was a mass of welts, cuts, and bruises that bled anew from the pelting rain.
I stared feeling my heart creeping into my throat and nearly gasped when the head lifted weakly and painfully. It was a woman with dark hair that hung in wet strings from her head with a bruised face with an eye swollen shut. A strip of thick rope was shoved into her mouth and tied around her head as a gag and it kept her mouth open at a painful angle. Her open eye was dead, void of hope or knowing only pain. She saw me through the window. I don't know how, but I knew that she could see me.
There was a plea in her eye now. Not a plea for freedom, but a plea to end it. The gun felt heavy as if reminding me of its presence at my belt. She was close at least two car lengths. I'm not a top-notch shot, but I could make that and put a bullet in her brain freeing her from their grasp, but doing so would give me away and if they should catch me . . . well, I was looking at what my fate would be in the face now.
Finally, the leader had enough waiting and yanked on the chain that was attached at the hell hound's shoulders making it yelp in a deep growl and thenmotioned for the others to follow. They rode off taking the bound woman with them, but she stayed with me for day afterward.
I gave Michael the all clear sign. We left the store locking the door. We returned to the alley and climbed the fire escape to the third level building. We climbed through a window and once the window was shut, we felt safe enough to talk.
"Shit, that was too close." Michael pulled off his wool hat and ran a hand over his blond hair. "That's the reason the store hadn't been hit before. It's on their path."
"Maybe, do you think its worth going back tomorrow to get the rest?" I asked him as I sat down on a sofa covered in dust. It creaked beneath me and I felt as if the weight of the world was sliding off my shoulders.
"I don't know. I rather starve than let those bastards get me."
"It's nice to know that its there if we need. I think we'll be alright for several days with what we have now." I cross my arms over my chest trying to keep warm, despite my soaked clothes. I thought about the woman I saw, the one I could have helped, but didn't. I stood up, I wasn't eager to go back into the rain, but I rather think of how wet and miserable I was than that woman. "Let's head back and rest."
"We could rest here."
I shook my head, "No, you didn't see it, but they had a hell-hound with them and it was sniffing for us. Thankfully, the bastards weren't patient enough for it to get the scent."
Michael didn't argue, but he was none too pleased about going back out into the rain so soon. Michael was a strong kid at age seventeen and the horrors of this new world had made him mature far beyond his young years. He always went first to make sure it was clear before he had me follow and he insisted I take the gun when we went out to scavenge. He dragged a plank which had leaned on the far wall and lie it across the gap between the building we occupied and the next. He crossed the narrow plank into the next building and held out his arms as I tossed our bags over to him, andthen he held the board while I crossed. We crossed like this from building to building until we got to the end of the block, then we went down the fire escape in an alley to a storm drain where the metal lid was easily lifted off. It was a tight fit, but luckily due to scant eating we were both thin enough to slide through into the sewer system where a bicycle was waiting in the tunnel. I rode on the back with my arms around Micheal's waist while he pedal us down a series a tunnels beneath the city. It was generally safe, but we still were alert and there were places we just couldn't go.
Then we came to the end of a tunnel that poured into the river. Michael parked the bike and hide it behind wet cardboard boxes and garbage. We followed along the river's edge toward a train yard. The yard was perfect as there were hundreds of hiding places among the empty trains and box cars. Michael went ahead with the gun to make sure that nobody had moved into our makeshift home while I waited with our collection. He whistled the all clear and I hurried forward anxious to change out of wet clothes.
The box car we called home still had a sliding door with a bucket outside as the toilet. Inside was two mattresses and cushions we had towed from the train station nursing room. There was a small safe we had also collected from the station where we kept our food and essentials locked with a key Michael had. The thought had more than once crossed my mind that if Michael should ever be killed or loss, then I would be without food, but more than once we had returned to a ransacked camp where someone had taken all of our food and belongings. This way, they aren't likely to carry off a safe of which they had no way of opening. Unless they possessed Micheal's skills with lock picking.
I changed clothes while Michael started the fire. We had hung up a curtain over a clothesline string we had found for privacy. We even had a bathroom mirror hanging on a chip of metal coming from the interior wall. As I changed, I caught a glimpse at the mirror and nearly shouted in fright that a strange had entered the car without our noticing. The person I saw in the mirror had long brown hair tangled and dirty which hung to her shoulders. Wide gray eyes were pools of fear and exhaustion in a face pale and soiled and ribs could be easily counted.
I tore my gaze from the mirror and made a promise to 'accidentally' smash it later. I didn't need a mirror to tell me I look horrible when I already felt it in my aching muscles and cold flesh and hungry belly. I stripped off the soiled pants and two sweaters and then pulled on a thick hoodie and a pair of jeans. I pulled back the winter boots.
"As much as I hated my step-dad, I gotta give him some credit for forcing me to learn camping skills," Michael said.
"Yeah?" I replied.
"He took me camping with Buddy and Steven. Ya know, the kids from his first marriage. God, those guys made that week a living hell shoving me into the water when we fished, pushing shaving cream in my hands while I slept and tickling my nose with a feather. I think that was the reason I took up baseball so I was in a sport they considered manly and I used practice as a reason to stay away from them."
Michael had been on a school bus with his team on his way to a game when the meteors fell. He never made it home. I don't know what had happened to his teammates and teachers before we met as that was a story I knew he rather not share, but I often hear him crying in his sleep and would sometimes wake up shouting for his coach.
He was remembering the past, of what things had been before. I quickly said, "Go ahead and change out of those wet clothes. I'll heat up some food."
He silently nodded and stood from the upright cinder block he had been sitting on. He slipped behind the curtain and I proceeded to taking a can opener and opening a can of beans and pouring the contents into a pan I had cleaned in the rain earlier that morning. I held it outside to get some water and began cooking.
I took up Micheal's seat and watched the beans heat up and found myself looking myself in memories.
A friend and I had taken the day off from work and had decided to go shopping in the next town over which had a mega mall. During the drive we heard on the radio reports of meteors and attacks hitting major cities and metropolitan areas. We thought it was a joke or we had changed to a station running a science fiction radio drama until we saw the meteor's ourselves in the distance. We stopped at a gas station which had a TV aired to a news channel. Over and over images of cities being hit with meteors with concerned reporters speaking about the incidents happening across the globe, then the images were of the demons and monsters that came from these meteors. Needless to say I was terrified especially when one of the men changed the channel to a local news station that stated our hometown had just been struck by a meteor.
My friend, Carol, took a ride back to town. She had a husband and son she had been worried about. I tried to talk her out of it, telling her that it was too dangerous, but she went anyway. I never saw her again.
I took the car and continued west toward California where my parents lived. I avoided large cities and town and kept and listened to the reports, then the radio stopped and went silent. There were no more reports after that. I stopped at the store and maxed out my credit card buying food, water, and a gun. Thank God, I had enough foresight to do that. The gun had saved my life more than once before today.
Michael came out from behind the curtain changed in dry clothes, but still looked lost and hurt. He sat across from me on a small stool and collected the tin plates from the corner. I split the food up and we began eating quietly. Michael finished his meal before me and said softly, "Yemina, do you think anything will go back to normal?"
I lifted my face from my meal and stared at him, "What do you mean?"
"Do you think that things will go back to the way they were?"
I shook my head, "No, Michael. I don't think anything will ever be normal again."
Michael swallowed then took a sip from his water bottle. "Then why do we bother living?"
I didn't know the answer to that question. Despite my hunger, I found myself losing my appetite. "I can't answer that question."
"Is this what it's going to be from now on? Us sneaking around praying that those monsters don't find us and eating whatever scraps of food are left? Shit .. . fuck!" Michael stood up fast and threw his plate against the far wall. "Goddammit! I remember pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers! When food didn't come out of a fucking can! When I can walk outside without worrying if anything saw me!"
I clenched my teeth. "So do I, Michael. Okay, so do I. Just sit down and lower your voice."
"Jesus, I could kill just to take a bath and wear clean clothes again. Not have to walk around smelling myself."
"Michael, stop. Okay. You're not saying anything that hadn't already crossed my mind. I hate this too."
Michael sat down on the floor so hard it made the wall behind him rattle. He clutched his head with both hands and groaned low in his voice, "We're just waiting to die. Eventually, something is going to happen. Those monsters will find us, we'll starve, or something. We're the last people on Earth. We haven't seen another human being for a month."
I swallowed. I didn't want to mention the woman I saw tied to the demon's saddle. "Michael, we do what we can. We're doing good so far. Go to sleep or read your book. Do you want me to rub your shoulders? I can do that if you want me to." I would have done anything for him to drop the subject.
Michael was quiet then nodded, "Okay."
I scrapped what I didn't eat back into the pan to warm it back up later to finish eating. Michael rose from the floor and went to his mattress and laid face down. I walked over to him blowing warm air into my cupped hands to warm them. I straddled his waist and began working on his shoulders. Months ago, before this all happened, I would have felt uncomfortable being a 30 year old woman giving a 16 year old boy a massage like this, but that world had ended and in this world, no one cared.
"Go to sleep," I told him, "I'll keep watch." We slept in watches. It was too dangerous for both of us to sleep at the same time. Doing so has kept us from being attacked in our sleep or being found.
As I was working out a knot, Michael said softly, "Sorry for yelling at you. It just gets to be too much."
"I understand. Listen, Michael, don't do anything . . . drastic, okay. At least not without talking it over with me first."
"What do you mean?" He yawned and then closed his eyes.
Don't kill yourself without letting me know first. I'll want to die too.
I didn't say that, instead I said, "Anything drastic ."
I think deep down he knew what I meant. While I eased him into a deep dreamless sleep with strokes and petting, I wondered myself what we hoped to live for? The human race was dead and there was no hope for a future. Just fear, hopelessness, and for it to end with death.