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After The Light (Book 3, Fallen City Series) - Chapters 1, 2, & 3

Part I

 

 

Chapter One


Elliot


Day Three of Tiara’s Captivity.

 

“Aliens.”


“Aliens?”


“Aliens.”


“…little green men in flying saucers landed and pulled a, hm, a lever to shut off the world’s power?”


“No, asshole… like maybe aliens brought the infection here, and because of the infection and everything falling apart, it shut the power off.”


“That makes more, hmm, more sense… But Florida? Aliens are going to come…” Elliot took a deep breath and slowly released it, his lower lip quivering as he did. “Come here and… go to Florida?”


“Why not?” Kat shrugged. “If I was going to kill anyone first, it’d be Florida.”


Elliot snickered a laugh but quickly grimaced. His hand softly touched his belly. The skin was tender around his wound and felt hot. It felt alien. As though that piece of his stomach had no connection to him. When he rocked his head from side to side, he felt the cool sweat that was soaked into the pillow dab his neck. For hours now, or maybe days — time was difficult to follow now—Elliot had been in and out of consciousness. Caught between kicking his blanket off because he was melting into the mattress and wrapping himself in a cocoon of comforters Kat had stacked beside him, he was ready for this to be over. He had made his preparations.

The nausea was the worst of it. When the muscles in his abdomen flexed, as they did when he puked, it felt like getting shot all over again.


Kat must’ve read his face because she grabbed a small plastic trash bin beside his mattress. “Do you feel sick?”


Elliot shook his head and held up a hand, keeping his eyes closed as if to say he was fine but give him a minute. The moment passed and Elliot could suppress the rising bulge in the bottom of his throat as he felt another drip of cool sweat fall from his forehead. Opening his eyes, he saw a stiff-looking Kat sitting by his side. Her eyes were wide with concern.


Kat didn’t look like the woman who found him all those months ago hiding in the closet. The day after fending off the attack at the college, she had cut her long brown hair, so it was now barely long enough to put into a ponytail. The shorter hair made her look older than the nineteen-year-old he knew. It revealed her soft features and thin face. Like everyone else still alive, she lost the chubby cheeks and love handles she once carried. Excess weight and fat storage was a luxury no one could afford. The gray and black sweatshirt she wore like a safety blanket was gone as well. Too stained from Elliot’s blood to be salvageable. Elliot’s and Tiara’s blood.


“You should, hmm… get some sleep,” Elliot winced as the dizzy spells returned. “You, um, don’t know when they’ll be back.”


“They’ve come every night for the past three nights… they’re coming tonight,” Kat said as she wiped a wet washcloth over Elliot’s brow.


“Yeah, well the–” Elliot took a deep breath and exhaled to focus himself. “There’s more people counting on you. There’s nothing you can do for me. I’m—”


Kat straightened. “Would you stop saying that? You’re not going to–”

“Come on, Kat, look around...”


The infirmary was once a conference room but now, after so many dead bodies had expired in here, it smelled of body odor and something off. The pitch-black room had a small battery-powered nightlight in the center so Nurse Murkle could pop her head in periodically and check on her patients. Not that there was anything she did for them. She checked to see if they had died yet, so she could clear the bed. Four other patients battling infections from gunshot wounds died over the past two days. The second to the last to die was Martin. The middle-aged man passed earlier that afternoon. Lost in a place between unconsciousness and delirium, Martin died after soaking the mattress in sweat and urine. Elliot would be the last to go.


“They all died the same. Derek died the same… hm,” Elliot winced and took a break to catch his breath. Kat busied herself by pouring a short glass of water for him.


“Stop talking,” Kat said, shaking her head. “Here, drink this.”


Kat brought the glass of water to his mouth, and Elliot grimaced at the thought of putting anything in his belly.


“I wasn’t asking, Elliot. Drink this,” Kat insisted and caught his eyes for the first time.

Elliot put the shot of bitter water to his lips and choked it down.


“It’s your turn,” Kat said. “What do you think caused the end of the world–if not aliens?”

Elliot stared at the white-tiled ceiling and tried to remember what the starry sky looked like beyond it. It was the only thing Elliot loved about not having electricity and cars’ exhaust fumes clouding the sky. The black sky speckled with a million stars on display. Looking up at such a sky made Elliot believe he was part of something bigger. To be lost in between the endless glitter of the dazzling stars was to forget the crippling sorrow that seemed to always be around the corner. It made Elliot want to believe that everything was happening for a reason. That this pain, his death, would serve a purpose.

“God,” Elliot finally whispered.


Kat smirked as she looked down at his clammy hand folded between hers. “Well, God must be pretty pissed at us then, huh?”


“Maybe,” Elliot’s mind wandered. His eyelids fluttered closed before twitching open again. “Maybe we made him mad…”


“Well,” Kat sighed and leaned back in her chair. A small creak escaped the wooden chair as she shifted her weight. “If this is all God’s doing, I don’t know if I want to meet him.”


Elliot’s breathing slowed as he drifted nearer to sleep. “Maybe… he wants to meet… us…”


Kat’s eyes darted to the hallway when shouting echoed through the cracked doorway. There was a burst of automatic gunfire from one of their sentries on the roof, followed by more screams. Kat grabbed her rifle that was propped against the wall at the head of Elliot’s bed.

“Are they back?” Elliot jolted awake, then winced from the pain. It felt like a thousand blades cut their way outwards from his wound. “Ah—are they back?”


Kat touched her palm to his bare chest just below his throat and Elliot gasped, then relaxed back to the mattress. He put his palm on top of hers out of instinct. She paused, looking down at him. Kat’s eyes spoke volumes in the quiet moment they shared.


Her fingers squeezed Elliot’s hand firmly and whispered, “Stay here. I’ll be back.”

 


 

Chapter Two


Rasha

 

Four nights, Rasha thought, scrambling out of bed. Throwing on a long-sleeved shirt over the baggy t-shirt she wore to bed, Rasha nearly tripped over Rockwall’s leg as he rolled to his hands and knees. They both muttered an apology simultaneously. She quickly pushed on her shoes, shouldered a backpack, and grabbed her small silver handgun before moving to the door. Rockwall hopped on one foot as he tried to put his second boot on. His wounded foot was still on the mend.


“I’m comin’, I’m comin’. I’m right behind you,” he bellowed.


I can’t believe they keep attacking… four nights in a row now…


Rasha already knew where Jimenez was. She assumed Kat was with Elliot in the infirmary. It was her night. Since the secondary attacks began each night following the battle with the Lord’s Chosen, Kat and Rasha had agreed to take shifts at Elliot’s bedside. After watching the other critically wounded slip into sweaty comas and die alone in the infirmary, they would not allow Elliot to die the same way. Perhaps they couldn’t save their friend, but they could at least be by his side.


Running down the hallway, Rasha focused on not putting her finger on the trigger of the pistol–the first thing Kat told her when she handed her the gun. Rasha hated even having the thing near her. The black ‘sub-compact’ gun didn’t even have a safety.

Why would you not put a safety on a gun?



‘Your finger is your safety,’ was Kat’s only dismissive response.


With it sitting beside her pillow while she slept, Rasha had to glance at it continuously through the night. She worried it would go off on its own and shoot someone—or herself. It wasn’t long after Kat had executed the soldiers that Jimenez and Kat had issued weapons to every person who remained. Even Rodger and his people… despite Rasha’s misgivings.

It was the only way to lower the response time significantly to the now nightly attacks. The past two nights were proof enough. Whether the Lord’s Chosen knew it, the series of attacks had exhausted and disheartened the people of the college, but it also hardened their defenses as much as their people. Each firefight won, grew the confidence of the untrained militia. Rasha could see it now in the movements of the men and women as they ran with rifles and shotguns in hand for their practiced rally positions. There was a focus in their eyes that hadn’t been there a week prior. They had a familiarity with their weapons, unlike Rasha, who still ran like it was a time bomb in her hand.


Another burst of gunfire came from the outside, but the sheet of plywood that hovered over the gaping hole in the ceiling seemed to capture the sound and echo inside the cafeteria. They had cleared the bodies from the college floor and swept up the thousands and brass bullet casings that coated the floor, but streaks of dried blood remained behind, staining the carpets in the halls. The black bullet holes still peppered the walls. This place was no longer a home to be enjoyed. It was a battered fortress to be defended.


Rasha entered the cafeteria along with a dozen others wiping the sleep from their eyes. They wore undershirts, baggy hoodies, sweatpants, or shorts–whatever they slept in, but they all carried their weapons and their ‘Go-Bags’ with them. Another change suggested by Jimenez. They filled the bottom of the bags with essential personal items in case they had to flee the college quickly, and packed at the top of the bag were their extra ammunition and medical supplies for a fight and their daily ration of water.


“Barry, where are they?” Kat jogged to the center of the cafeteria wearing a crossbody satchel and canting her rifle low.


Barry crawled through an opening that looked too small for his six-foot-four frame. They had crudely covered the blasted hole at the front of the cafeteria with sheets of metal and plywood taken from a construction site a few blocks away. The hole in the floor leading to the front lobby was the only opening they left for security to come and go.


“They’re on the front side, Kat. On the road near our front lawn,” Barry whispered. His black hair stood up on one side as if he had been sleeping. “I count six.”


“Who’s shooting? Are any of our people hit?” Kat asked.


“No, no, they fired on the college when they approached, didn’t make any sense,” Barry huffed. “Like just shooting at the building.”


“Check the perimeter. Don’t fire unless you will hit them,” Kat ordered.


“Got it,” Barry said, setting off in a jog towards the back of the cafeteria. Barry had once been a follower of Rodgers. A tall, quiet man who, like many, followed the crowd and found safety in numbers. It was Jimenez who recommended him to Kat. Barry was Jimenez’s main source of help in defending the civilians in the kitchen once the Lord’s Chosen had made it inside on the first night of attacks. Fighting was like a strainer. It sifted out the personalities not equipped for it, like Rasha.


“Rockwall,” Kat turned to the big man as he limped in. “I need you to take team C there and watch the back door. We can’t see anyone back there now, but just in case,” Kat pointed with her entire hand extended to the back door beside the kitchen. A familiar military gesture she had been taught by Army Specialist Sam Trent before she killed him. He deserved it, of course. All four soldiers who once were in charge of this place did. They hoarded food and tried to kill Elliot, but the fact that Kat was the one who executed Sam gave Rasha pause.

They were once close. Almost too close.


No one changed more than Kat over the past four days. It was more than the military efficiency in strategy and confidence in combat she showed when executing the defensive missions. There was a detachment in her face that seemed to numb her to emotions. Like the world that happened around her was a dream that wasn’t real. The violence she saw was colored bubbles popping in the background. The lives she took were meaningless actions. Kat’s gray eyes washed over the room, analyzing more than seeing. Rasha knew better, though. Dreams always meant something.


“You got it, Kat,” Rockwall nodded. His big brown eyes were wide with worry. The man wore a white undershirt that was stretched over his back and rounded belly. It was difficult in the apocalypse to scavenge fitting clothes for the gentle giant who stood the size of two men, both in height and width. The 4XL t-shirt he wore had the sleeves cut off thanks to Rasha and the tail barely reached down to cover his belly button.


Rasha watched Rockwall saunter away. Her mind became sidetracked and wondered if she could cut part of the back of his shirt to make it more comfortable and sew it together to keep it from ripping. It was a strange relationship, but the enormous middle-aged plumber had become something of a big brother to her in the past months. Aside from Jimenez and Elliot, Rockwall was one of the few she trusted.


There was another burst of gunfire that made everyone’s knees buckle in preparation to duck.


“Rasha!” Kat called to her as she ran for the front opening. Teams A and B had rallied in their corners. There were only five people on each team. “Sabrina, you’re in charge of B. You stay in the cafeteria behind cover and back us up in the lobby if we need you.”


“Okay,” Sabrina nodded.


“And listen for our guards on the roof. Let me know if they see anything,” as Kat spoke, Barry jogged from the kitchen down ‘Rodger’s Hall,’ to check those windows.


“Right,” Sabrina nodded, already looking overwhelmed by instructions. She limped to the side and instructed the other four on her team to hide behind one of the long, turned-over tables already speckled with dozens of old bullet marks.


“Hey! Kat, Kat!” a familiar voice shouted.


Kat ignored the calls and kept walking.


Rasha turned when she heard the heavy-footed stomps coming their way. She pointed at his weapon. “Hey, Rodger! Watch where you’re pointing that.”


Rodger sneered at Rasha as he passed, but didn’t stop pointing his rifle haphazardly in Team B’s direction. “Kat!” Rodger repeated.


“I heard you the first time, Rodger. I’m busy,” Kat snapped.


“Four nights of this? Four nights… really. This can’t go on.” Rodger shook his head. “We can’t just keep getting attacked and–and–”


“Why don’t you go out there and ask them nicely to stop,” Kat said, getting ready to squat down and crawl into the front lobby.


From the opposite direction, Rodger’s circle of loyalists hesitated at the mouth of the hallway, not wanting to commit to entering before confirming where the danger was so they could be elsewhere. They were the undisciplined D team. The nine men and women of the college no one expected anything from, so they could never disappoint.


This was the downside of arming every person in the college, Rasha thought. It means even our political enemies are armed as well.


“Go back to your squad,” Kat called. “Stay back and listen to Rockwall.”


Rodger snarled and looked like he had a retort, but Kat was already crawling through the hole to the front lobby of the college’s cafeteria. They had resealed the front door to the lobby, but the pitch-black room was still littered with demolished furniture and burned desks that once clogged the area before a dozen rocket-propelled grenades hammered their way inside. The lobby reeked like chemicals and smoke-stained walls. Kat’s A team crawled in behind her. They took up positions on both sides of the room.


Rasha moved to the opposite side of the front double doors from Kat. Jimenez had cut large cubby holes like windows in the plywood that covered the exposed front of the college. Now that Rasha looked at them, she questioned if the design was the best they could have done.

“We’re holding their attention,” Kat whispered to her team in the darkness. “That’s all. Slow and steady fire until Jimenez comes, okay?”


Rasha and the team silently agreed. Nick, a former art student at the college with a scruffy beard and a nose ring, inched in front of Rasha on his knees. He held his rifle almost as delicately as Rasha did, but at least he didn’t point it at any of his own people as Rodger did. Ross crawled beside him on Kat’s side. He was a short man with long blond hair tied in a ponytail. Kat gave them both a nod to take the first shots. Darkness shrouded the details of the street in front of them. They scattered a handful of shots in every direction. The crackle of their gunfire lasted several seconds before they took cover, anticipating the return fire.

None came. The room was silent. Outside was silent.


Did the Lord’s Chosen run? Were they not Lord’s Chosen at all, did Barry make a mistake?

When they heard gunfire, Rasha and Kat both looked up, as it wasn’t the Lord’s Chosen returning fire, but their two sentries posted on the roof. They weren’t supposed to reveal their positions unless it was an emergency. And their shooting was automatic gunfire along the side of the building.


Rasha furrowed her brow as she eyed Kat. What is going on?


Panicked shouting arose from the cafeteria behind them.


“What is that?” Kat whispered to Rasha.


The voice neared the hole leading to the cafeteria. It was Sabrina limping towards the lobby. The two guards on the roof had yelled down a warning for her to pass along, but she could only shout one word. Rasha didn’t understand until it was too late.


“Fire! Fire!” Sabrina screamed.



Kat peeked halfway out in front of the window when an arm appeared from the left. It was close enough to reach inside and grab her, but it chucked a flaming glass bottle inside the lobby. It missed Kat’s face by inches and crashed on the floor behind them. A bloom of fire exploded with the shatter of glass.


Seeing movement so close, Rasha shoved her pistol out the window. Blading her body away from the gun and through squinted eyes, she squeezed the trigger three times. Each gunshot nearly kicked the pistol out of her grip. The second man successfully threw his Molotov cocktail inside as well, but the third screamed from his bullet wounds and dropped his bottle at his own feet.


The bottle was still intact and the first Lord’s Chosen soldier stumbled, attempting to pick it up. Bathed in the orange flame the Molotov cocktail produced, Kat sighted her rifle on the man and fired a dozen times into his back. Nick popped up beside Rasha and fired outside as well, but the damage was already done.


Rasha could feel the heat kiss the back of her neck as the flames spread from the accelerant that was in the two shattered bottles. The once black room was suddenly shadowed by the flames crawling up the legs of the half-demolished tables and chairs littered across the floor.


A barrage of bullets followed. Rasha dove against the wall to get away from the bullets chewing away at the entryway. The lower half of the doors where Nick and Ross crouched were covered in metal siding, but the upper section around the firing window was only thin plywood. Enemy bullets chewed bite-sized holes out of the wood near each member of A team taking cover. The spread of fire not only trapped their team where they were, but it lit up the inside of the lobby and painted their silhouettes as targets for the Lord’s Chosen.


A stack of three wooden tables that had caught on fire toppled over on Rasha’s legs. Nick fell to the side, then dashed in and scooped Rasha’s hips, pulling her out from under the burning table.


“Kat! Kat! Are you guys okay!?” Sabrina coughed and shouted from the hole hidden by the flames. “We’re getting water!”


“Yeah, yeah, we’re–”


Another barrage of gunfire pushed them into cover.


“Shit!” Kat cursed, blind-fired a volley outside, and then stole a glance at their attackers. “They’re staying behind the cars in the street.”


“The window! In Rodger’s hall!” Barry’s muffled voice yelled from somewhere behind Sabrina.

Rasha felt a rush of air come from the window and towards the hole to the cafeteria. The fire that had grown stagnant after burning off most of its accelerant now swirled in a frenzy. The tips of the flames reached for Rasha as she pressed her back against the wall.


“Wind tunnel!” Rasha coughed. Gunfire was everywhere now. Inside the college, in front of the college, and behind.


The flames grew, igniting all three tables beside them. The fire would soon force them to fall outside and be chewed apart by bullets while the rest of the college would burn.


Ross and Nick were taking turns returning fire with the Lord’s Chosen on the street. Kat’s eyes darted to Rasha as she nodded at the fire. “Any ideas?” She coughed.


Nick stuffed his hand in his go-bag and retrieved his canteen of water. Unscrewing the lid, he splashed the water on the flames, making no difference other than a brief sizzle of a sound. Kat pulled out their water bottles, as did everyone else, but Rasha threw her hands up.

“Wait!” Rasha yelled and quickly removed her hoody. Rasha poured her canteen on her hoody and soaked it with a few more bottles of water. Switching places with Nick, she told him to cover her.


Nick fired rounds outside while Rasha held the hoodie flush to her stomach, hesitated, and leaped on the nearest table that had caught fire. The heat instantly warmed her belly and smoke dosed her face, but as she shimmied from side to side, she opened her eyes and realized she hadn’t caught fire. A few seconds passed, and she thought she had done it. The fire was out. Then Rasha screamed as the heat seared her belly. The hoody began to smolder and send black smoke into her lungs.



She rolled off and fell to the side as everyone hacked wet coughs. Kat stole gulps of air out the window between a barrage of shots.


Rasha held her belly and pointed at her hoody which was now on fire. “The tile won’t catch fire, but we need to put out the desks before they set fire to the rest–”


Kat cocked her head to the side and shook it as if just realizing she had been using the wrong end of the fork to eat with her entire life. “Son of a—”


“What?” Rasha asked.


“Move,” Kat said to Nick and Ross, who took cover under the windows. Using the butt of her rifle, Kat rammed the corners of the destroyed plywood to widen the window.


“What are you doing!?” Ross panicked. “Are you crazy!”


Kat positioned herself on the opposite side of one of the burning tables and kicked it to the opening. Timing it so as not to get shot, she flipped it out the window and onto the concrete entryway. Once the first table was tossed outside, Ross, Nick, and Rasha all shared the same look.


“Oh,” Rasha said and blinked a few times. “Okay, that works, too.”


Kat gave a small, exhilarated laugh as two of their teammates grabbed the other pieces of furniture that were almost completely engulfed in flames and tossed them outside. A few of the floor tiles were still on fire from the accelerant, but Rasha quickly stomped it out with what remained of her hoody.


The volleys of gunfire exchanged between the groups were overpowered by a thunderous roar. Rasha and Kat rushed to the front doors and saw a line of muzzle fire marching down the attacking Lord’s Chosen. This new squad of shooters poured bullets into the men and ended the fight with a swift attack on the enemy flank.


“Jimenez is here,” Kat told her team. Slowly, the gunfire around the college trickled away. The last shots were fired by the guards on their roof.


“We’re clear, Kat,” Jimenez’s richly accented voice called from the road.


Kat and Rasha exchanged a shake of their heads like they both couldn’t believe they survived.

Kat didn’t want to crawl back through to the cafeteria as the floor was still smoking, but she leaned down to yell out the hole. “Sabrina, you there?”


“Kat? Oh my god. Is the fire still—get the water!” Sabrina shouted to someone.


“No, no. Save the water. The fire isn’t a problem. Is everyone okay?” Kat asked.


“Yeah, they broke in through one window of the hall. One of Rodger’s people got shot in the arm, but it doesn’t look bad. That’s it though,” Sabrina said.


“Tell Rockwall we’re going to come around the back.”


“Okay.”


Kat, Rasha, and their team each took turns hopping over the front defensive barrier. The pile of burning furniture they had made at the front entry of the college lit up the night like a bonfire. If the fire wasn’t cooking the two Lord’s Chosen men it laid on, it almost might’ve been pleasant.


Jimenez and his five team members walked from between the cars. Kat nodded to Jimenez, who smiled back. Each night, they had to change tactics and reposition their forces. That night, Jimenez took their security team and stood guard a few blocks away. Their purpose was not to prevent an attack as a traditional guard would but to win a fight if attacked. To surprise any attacking force from behind.


“Took you long enough,” Kat smirked.


Jimenez nodded, then shook his head. Sweat covered his brow. He had sprinted to get there. “Anyone hurt?”


“No, no one. Well, Rodger’s people but…” Kat shrugged and half smirked. “They’ll live.”


“How many were there?” Rasha asked.


“Three back there,” Jimenez pointed to the backside of the college. “Six on the street.”


Kat nodded to the two dead beneath the makeshift bonfire, “And two here.”


“Eleven,” Rasha said. Her mind parceled out the information. “Tonight was eleven, last night was ten, the night before was twelve…”


Kat shrugged, “And the night before that was fifty. So what?”


“I don’t know,” Rasha said, looking around at their surroundings. “I don’t understand why.”

“Tire us out? Wear us down?” Kat suggested.


Rasha shook her head, she was missing something.


“I’m sorry,” Jimenez sighed. The look of disappointment was thick in his eyes as he stared at his feet. “I really didn’t think it would take that long to return here. I heard all the shooting and—”


“It’s okay. It all worked out,” Rasha reassured him with a smile.


Kat nodded, too. “We know better now for tomorrow’s attack.”


A solemn expression came over Jimenez as he lowered his head. “Yes. Tomorrow’s attack…”

 


 

Chapter Three


Thomas


Thomas looked over his shoulder again. The scene hadn’t changed since the last time he checked. Private Benson narrowed his eyes on him with a knitted brow. He walked with a waddle from his stubby frame. His buddy, Staff Sergeant Dickson, was in the middle of whispering something to Benson when he spotted Thomas watching.


“Dude, what?” Dickson asked, with an exasperated look on his face.


“Nothing,” Thomas said, then looked away.


“Then why you keep looking at us?” Benson asked.


Thomas let the question go unanswered. He heard a murmur between the two men and a snicker that sounded like it was at his expense. Specialist Garcia gave Thomas a look that said what he thought.


I don’t like them walking behind us.


It was a combination of being back in school and walking the halls with snickering bullies at your back, and walking into the kitchen right after mom and dad had just finished one of their fights.


I found a way to combine every terrible feeling I thought was long dead to me in one apocalyptic march through Chicago.


At least Private Shepherd didn’t seem to mind, or he wasn’t making a show of it. He did fan out to the right more than he had the previous day of marching. Distance meant if their fire team divulged into a civil war and shots were fired, their side would be a more difficult target to shoot in the back. Not that shooting someone in the back was a challenge.


If this is what I’m really worried about, I should have just given them the last can of food and gone our separate ways, Thomas thought.



It didn’t help how quiet the city had become. Walking through the streets of downtown Chicago in August felt like walking on Mars. No people were scurrying to hide in the shadows, no distant gunshots, and almost no sounds. The occasional bird would flap between alleyways or a rat would scurry unseen under trash in the street, but that only added to the eeriness of the city. Thomas felt like he was the star of a horror movie and the killers were hiding behind him, about to strike.


It was Garcia who looked over her shoulder this time. Thomas didn’t blame her. The urge to monitor the two men was like a mosquito on the back of his neck.


“Stop fucking looking at me!” Benson snapped. He flagged Garcia with the muzzle of his rifle as he half-pointed the gun at her.


Garcia rounded on him and jabbed her finger to his feet. “Don’t you point your gun at me?”

“I didn’t,” Benson said, grabbing his rifle with two hands. “You want to see what it looks like when I really do?”


Garcia bladed her body into a combat stance and Thomas felt a tightness in his chest. Glue, packaging tape, and the most primal of survival instincts had held together the team, until now.


Shepherd stepped to Thomas’ side, waving both his palms in the air between the two sides. “Whoa, whoa, let’s not do this, guys!”


Thomas eyed Benson and Garcia carefully as they both stared each other down like it was the Wild West. “I thought we settled this last night at camp,” Thomas said, then glanced up at Dickson for support. “Dickson?”


Dickson took an extra moment longer to act, but eventually reached out and touched Benson’s shoulder. With a hushed whisper in his ear, the stout man finally relaxed his rifle, and, shortly after, Garcia followed suit.


“Why the hell you guys keep lookin’ at us?” Dickson said. “All of you. It’s like you’re planning something.”


Garcia threw her hand out to the side. “Why are you guys walking so far behind us? It’s making us nervous.”


“You’re nervous?” Benson looked at Dickson in shock. “We should be nervous. You were the one that threatened to kill us last night!”


“You stole our food; you piece of shit!” Garcia took a step forward and Thomas saw a small vein bulge in the side of her temple as she yelled.


“Stop, stop, stop!” Thomas walked between the two with a hand raised towards each of their chests. “We only got a few more hours of daylight. Let’s stow that shit! When we make it to camp, we can deal with it then, cool?”


Garcia tried to kill the building beside her with the glare she gave it, but she nodded in agreement while continuing to fume. Benson gave no reply, but at least he wasn’t whining anymore.


Small victories.


“Until we make camp, let’s alternate lead. Dickson and Benson can take point and we’ll take over rear guard,” Thomas said.


“Uh, hell no,” Dickson replied, making a face. “I ain’t walking with you guys behind me.”

“They’re just trying to kill us in our backs now,” Benson muttered.


“We walked all day with you guys—” Garcia stomped towards the pair of men. Thomas could almost see her head steaming like an overheated tea kettle.


“Okay, okay… shit…” Thomas said, cutting Garcia off with his body and making eye contact with her. Her nostrils flared and her jaw clenched, but she could stop herself. Turning back to face the others, Thomas took a deep breath. “Fine. You don’t trust us and we don’t trust you. Shepherd, switch with Dickson.”


Dickson opened his mouth but rethought whatever he was going to say and complied. He took Shepherd’s place in the front, to Thomas’ right side.


Thomas knew the fight from last night wasn’t over. The entire day had been a ticking time bomb waiting to blow. They had been walking North through the city ever since the broadcast from the woman being… ever since whatever happened to that woman they spoke to on the radio. She had said she was South of Chicago before she stopped talking, so that was good enough to give them a direction.


Not South.


No one wanted to talk about the collapse of Outpost Washington. Thomas didn’t even want to remember it. Even the few decent memories he had there had been tainted by suffering. It was a sore on the roof of his mouth that stung at every touch, and yet his tongue kept returning to it. He had to let her go; he knew. He had to let them both go.

Keep moving forward.


Forward wasn’t much, but it was enough.


Just enough…


They agreed to ‘gorge’ themselves on one whole can of food each the first night after their escape. They welcomed the splurge, but it did little to nourish their hunger. Their bodies had devoured themselves over the past month of slow starvation that a single meal wasn’t a magic wand. Still, they had to ration their remaining food, as it became clear the city was just a skeleton drying in the barren desert. Watering a can of corn down to nothing, then splitting it five ways, didn’t taste like a meal. It felt like corn-flavored water. Last night was Benson’s four-hour block to be on watch while the rest slept. Dickson had the shift after him, which was probably why they thought they could get away with it.


Garcia was the one who interrupted their heist.


Flicking on her rifle light in the small office building they had made camp, Garcia woke the others to the sight of Dickson and Benson hunched in the room's corner, each madly scooping a chunky brown substance from a can. Thomas imagined that was how cavemen looked if they had canned goods to eat. Thomas wouldn’t forget the wildness in Benson’s eyes. He looked like a round-faced rat caught in the house. He still scooped handfuls of beef chili into his mouth even after being spotlighted. Garcia shouldered her rifle and charged the pair of thieves. Meanwhile, Thomas struggled to shake the sleep from the edges of his eyes.


“We’re starving to death!” Benson had complained. Sauce smeared around his lips like a child. “What good is food if you’re dead?”


At the sound of his whiny voice making pathetic excuses, Thomas wanted to break the man’s nose once he realized what had happened. If they were unarmed, Thomas would have. But at their level of exhaustion, a physical fight would devolve into a gunfight.


Hell, an argument over looking at another almost turned into a bloodbath.


Once Thomas had finally talked Garcia into taking her finger off her rifle’s trigger, Thomas took count of their remaining four cans of food and determined the pair of ingrates had each eaten a single can of food. The only way to keep the peace was for Garcia, Shepherd, and Thomas to each eat a can of food right then and there. In reality, while number wise, the math added up, doing so only left greater resentment in each of them. Garcia and Shepherd each got a ‘low calorie’ can of chicken noodle soup while Thomas chose the cream of mushroom soup. They swallowed their meals begrudgingly knowing that Dickson and Benson ate the only two cans of beef and beans chili. Thomas scarfed his down like a dog trying to finish his bowl before the human could take it away.


And now, walking through the dead city, their food supplies had shrunk from six cans of food to one in a single night. They walked for another two hours in silence and crossed the Chicago River from the South side to the North. The river had an extra fishy smell to it, but they refilled their water bottles all the same.


This is Lord’s Chosen territory.


The new marching positions kept the peace, though now Thomas was wondering if he was just delaying the inevitable. Garcia separated to Thomas’ left when there was a full-looking backpack on the asphalt near a pile of bones. Poking the muzzle of her rifle in the open flap, she nudged the balled-up pair of jeans and the moldy wad of underwear out onto the street and turned over the bag to only find more clothes. She returned to Thomas’ side as they continued the march. It was like an assembly line only they were on the moving belt, taking turns peering into the dead’s possessions.


The monotony of marching days on end left Thomas’ malnourished brain wandering from its focus more and more. He looked over each pile of bones they passed and tried to figure out the cause of death like he was a detective in a movie.


Well, bones in white shoes were surrounded by bullet casings, so he was probably killed in a firefight. Red gym shirt bones is missing a skull, so he was decapitated and they kept the head for a trophy… the game went on with the infinite amount of dead they passed.


It took a sudden bang on a nearby door to jar Thomas out of his thoughts and realize he hadn’t been maintaining watch on his fields of fire. The entire group jumped from the scare and pointed their rifles at the door. It was down a narrow alley that the setting sun didn’t touch. The green metal door was streaked with gray grime and mildew that had grown over most of it. Approaching the alley slowly, with his rifle trained on the door, Thomas noticed it was cracked just an inch. Like it had swung closed, but the latch was too heavy to click shut.

Something smashed against the inside of the door, releasing a bang that seemed deafening compared to the silence of the city. A metal chain or bolt on the inside of the door seemed to be the only thing that kept the door from exploding open and releasing… whatever was inside. Small sounds escaped the even smaller crack in the door. Thomas couldn’t see what it was, only flashes of movement inside.


It’s too big to be a dog… too strong.


Thomas exchanged a look with Garcia as they inched forward. He had never seen her scared before. It scared him more now that he had. The sounds were primal. Something between panting and a growl. The sounds begged for everyone to lean on the balls of their feet just to hear better.


The third crash in the door sent them tumbling backward.


“What the fuck!” Dickson shouted like it might answer him. His rifle raised, then lowered, nervously.


“I don’t—” Thomas started, not knowing what he was going to say.


As if in reply to their words, the thing inside released a guttural scream that sounded human but not. It sounded tortured. Confused. It sounded…


…Familiar


“The radio. The woman on the—” Thomas started, only to be cut off by the repeated banging on the door.


Garcia stuttered over its screams, “We—we should go—we should go right now!”

The door smashed against its lock, rattling as they broke into a sprint without needing another word. The sound of the banging of metal and throat-tearing screeches chased the soldiers away.



 

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