The whole world was covered in orange. From the dust covered roads to the vacant cars, the coppery sun seemed to set the world aflame. All was quiet and still. The only sound in the air was the crunching of boots on the old roads, the heavy breathing of my comrades; each thankful for the cool air. Every night the sun set, and every day the sun rose again. The same endless cycle that had been going on from the beginning of time. The world went on, despite the fact that life as we knew it had ended long ago.
“Dan, what’s the water situation?” I asked. He quickly pulled his bag off his shoulder and his face fell. Definitely not a good sign. He shook his head sadly.
“Not good Boss, we have two bottles,” he lifted one from his pack, the water sloshed around in the half empty plastic. “Maybe two and a half.” The plumbing had long since gone dry, leaving homes without an essential source of hydration. We took most of our water from streams and lakes, but the only source of clean water was bottled and that was a rarity. Scavengers had long ago looted more than their fair share of supplies. I looked down and shivered from the tension. Dan shrugged, pulling the bag back on his shoulder. He continued walking and we followed suit. I knew it was difficult for him to hide the worry he felt.
Buck up, I counseled myself. They depend on you. If they knew how worried I was ,these two would lose hope. That was something I could not afford. It wasn’t like I ever meant to play mother to these two, but this world brought parts of you to the surface that you didn’t know existed. As much as they depended on me, I depended on them. They protected me, watched my back, and they carried our supplies. Since we were always moving it was important we could carry as much food and water as possible. We never knew where our next meal was coming from.
“Quit moping,” my voice was hard, as if I was commanding it of them. These two had been around me long enough to know differently. “We always find our way, we have so far.” They didn’t respond, but they didn’t have to. We were all thinking it, dreading it. When would our luck finally run short?
I eyed Luke as he rubbed his chest for the umpteenth time this evening. I was worried about him. Unlike Dan who held no secrets, Luke was the type to keep things to himself. He was definitely hiding something. I just prayed that it wasn’t something that would hurt us in the end. Night was quickly approaching, if we didn’t hole up soon, we would lose precious light to set up camp. Preparations were mandatory, once that sun fell this place would become hell.
“Hey Boss!” I was brought back to reality by Dan’s call. “Looks like a convenience store, about a mile up the road!” Without being told, he ran ahead to scout it out. I knew I should be excited. A gas station like that meant that there could be supplies, but chances were, the looters had drank it dry. If nothing else, it would be a roof over our heads for the night. We hustled up the hill.
Any hope I had came to a crashing halt as we stood face to face with the building. It had been ransacked, that much was certain. The broken windows and defaced logos were proof of that. The boys lingered behind me. They were always waiting for me to decide, to act, to give orders. I silently drew my shotgun, and clicked the safety off. I gave them the nod, they followed suit falling in line behind me.
My heart started beating, as if it were trying to break free from my chest. It didn’t matter how often I did this, I always got scared, and excited. With a healthy dose of adrenaline pumping through my veins, I quickly and quietly slipped in the door. There was a bell tied to the door, the noise made me cringe as I entered. With darkness quickly approaching and the electricity long gone, the building was dark and intimidating. I held my breath waiting for something to react to our noisy entrance. We waited in silence; I let out a long breath when it seemed no one would welcome us. I pulled the flashlight from my belt and surveyed the area, the shelves were wiped clean. Dan and Luke also clicked on their lights.
“Look for anything we can use, batteries, food… water.” It hurt to give the order, knowing good and well that there would be nothing back there. Luke immediately went behind the counter, looking for cigarettes. It didn’t surprise me. He had been without for over a week now. Maybe that was why he had been so irritable and sickly. Withdrawals?
“Hey Boss?” I turned in Dan’s direction. He continued to wiggle a door knob, a confused look plastered on his face. “This is still locked.”
“Still locked” translated into no one had been able to break in. My face lit up, I quickly made my way to the door. I examined the knob thoroughly; chances are it couldn’t be picked. I thumbed the key hole. It looked like an industrial lock, not something I could just knock off or unscrew.
“Luke, look over there behind the counter would you? Maybe there is a key stashed somewhere.” It was wishful thinking, I knew that. Sometimes chances are all you have left. I continued to play with the door. I tested the strength, the hinges, anything that would let us in.
“Uh Boss?” Luke asked. I looked up; his face was suddenly paler than usual. “What about this guy?” I stood to see what he was referring to. In the corner, slumped in the darkness and out of view, was a dead man. He had been here a while, the stench from his flesh long gone. He was still in his uniform. I didn’t even gag and that bothered me. Had death become such a recurrence that it no longer bothered me?
“Poor soul, talk about working yourself to death,” Dan said it solemnly, but his joke went unappreciated. I gave him a look to make sure he knew it. He shrugged.
“Search him.” At my command Dan immediately knelt and went through his pockets. His devious smile lit up his caramel colored face. “I got it, Boss.”
He handed me a ring of keys. I could have kissed him. I wanted to be hopeful. I wanted to think that behind this door could be the key to our salvation. It was ridiculous to think like that, I knew I was setting myself up for heartache, but it was the most hope we’d had in weeks.
We tried all the keys on the ring, our hope fading fast. We were finally down to the very last key. There was nothing beautiful about it. There was nothing to make it different than any other key on the ring, but we looked at it like it was made of gold. My crew could feel my excitement, at this point I didn’t care, but if nothing came of it they would be devastated and it would be my fault.
My hand shook as the key slid into the lock. My throat got dry, my hands wet. I stopped and took a deep breath. The tension was suffocating.
“What are you waiting for Boss?” asked Luke. I sighed.
“Moment of truth,” I gave a quick smile and turned the key, slowly at first. When nothing resisted me I twisted it the rest of the way. The door clicked. We all breathed deeply, smiles plastered on our face.
“Would you like to do the honors?” I looked at Dan. He gave me one of his toothy, quirky smirks. I couldn’t help but grin too, warmed by the intensity of his smile.
“Hell yeah!” He opened the door, slowly at first. We stood behind him, Luke and me, guns drawn… just in case. What we encountered was better than anything we could have imagined. It was like the jackpot of jackpots. A whole case of bottled water was within our grasp. A couple gallon jugs of the stuff stacked beside it. Bagged chips, canned goods, candy bars. We had found the stock room. Whoever killed that guard and ransacked this place had been an idiot, an amateur. They had been our saving grace. By ransacking the place like they did and leaving the store room untouched, they scared anyone from messing with it. It looked like a dud. None of us spoke, scared to ruin the moment, or to wake up from this dream. It wasn’t salvation forever, but we would be okay for a while.
“Gentlemen, I suggest we have a celebration,” I was the first to break the silence. Dan crooned “I know just the thing Boss.” He pulled his pack off and pulled the three bottles from it. He handed one to each of us. Luke and I poured a little from our bottles to Dan’s half empty one.
“To water!” Dan suggested holding his bottle up for the toast.
“To Cigarettes!” Luke must have found some behind the counter after all. I smiled at them; it was so good to see their faces renewed with hope, excitement, motivation, life.
“To making it through another sunrise.” They smiled at me and we crunched our bottles together and drank. Quickly, we put our bottles away and started making preparations for the nightfall. The worst was still to come.
Our bags were loaded down with water bottles, canned beans, Twinkies and Doritos. Our sleeping bags were unrolled, the lantern emitting a sleepy glow on the store. We were ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
We had been together so long, it seemed natural. We were almost like family in a sick, dysfunctional way. We were outcasts, survivors. I watched as Luke played with his Swiss army knife. He flicked it out, then in, then out again. Perfectly on beat, in perfect rhythm, like the clicking of that blade had become his heartbeat. He could do anything with that scrap of metal. It had rusted from use and age. The red paint was slowly fading, chipping. Like his cold exterior, it faded the longer we were together.
When I met Luke, he was a scared kid, barely alive, barely sane. He would have killed me if I let him. It was completely different now. That boy would give his life for me without a moment’s hesitation.
It was so long ago, hard to judge just how long, the months seemed to run together. It had to be at least two years ago. Those two years had aged us by ten. The wasteland had not been kind to us. I still had my house then, the electricity only recently shut off. The chaos that ensued afterward was terrifying. It was strange, as resilient as the human race was supposed to be, as resilient as they had proved to be thus far, they broke when the light left. It took their hope, it was as if it took their sanity.
Dan had taken the first watch as we slept on the couches in the living room. We weren’t naive enough anymore to sleep at the same time. I almost didn’t know how I had made it this far without someone to watch my back. We had come to trust each other completely. When I moved, he moved, almost like we were connected by some invisible thread. It was like we could talk without speaking, like we breathed in sync.
I woke to a crash, the sound exploded into my duplex. The noise jolting me from a quiet slumber, the sound of the glass showering the floor sounded like the chiming of bells. I was on my feet, shotgun in my hand. Dan beat me to the punch, his gun also ready to shoot. He nodded in the direction of the back door. I silently nodded in reply. We crept across the floor, ready to surprise the intruder.
It was most likely a scavenger. Those vultures had been attacking homes everywhere since the lights went out. Our resources were too valuable, and I had no qualms taking a life for them. Dan and I parted ways, slipping silently around corners of the house. Everything was eerily still. Every shadow had me on edge, every noise had the muscles flexing around the trigger. I cried out slightly as I was pulled into my bathroom. A scrawny arm tightened around my neck. I quickly did the only thing I knew to do. Before his grip got to tight, I head butted the intruder. Quickly, without thinking, I flipped him to the cold tile floor. Gun pointed, I flipped on my flashlight.
What I saw bothered me. I had killed in the past. I am not going to feed you full of these “I had nightmares about it” sentiments either. I did what I had to do, and I felt no regrets. You couldn’t. But looking down at the frail frame on my tile, his young thin face, I hesitated. The boy couldn’t have been over sixteen, his facial hair had not even fully grown in.
He took my hesitation as a sign of weakness, as he should have. It showed how much of a fighter he was. He was quickly at his feet, pocket knife drawn, at my throat. The red paint shined in the light of my flashlight, skidding in circles on the floor where I dropped it in my surprise.
“Boss?” It was Dan. When I didn’t answer immediately, he knew what it meant. He didn’t call out again. You could hear his movements grow more aggressive deeper in the house. He was looking for me.
“What do you want kid?” I asked the scrawny boy in front of me.
“Anything you got.” Something strange happened then. Instead of killing him, instead of refusing him, I agreed.
“You got it Buddy, put the knife down. I’ll cook you a meal, give you some water. I’ll even give you a safe place to sleep.” He didn’t believe me at first. He slowly picked up my gun from the floor.
“You can hold on to that.” I told him. “Put your knife down.” He obeyed, but slowly, warily. “Put that thing at my throat again and I won’t need that gun to kill you. Got it?” Dan was quickly in the doorway. His gun was pointed straight at the boy, the boy’s gun pointed straight at him. I pushed both of their barrels to the floor. “Let’s get some breakfast, huh?” Dan didn’t understand it then, but I saw in that boy’s eyes the same thing that shined in his, that shined in mine; the will to survive. Luke never left my side after that and he never pointed a weapon at me again.
“Hey, Boss!” Dan’s voice finally broke through my thoughtful state. “Quit thinking so hard, you are going to blow a fuse.” We all chuckled at that.
“You’re just jealous she is able to think so hard.” Luke teased. Dan threw his jacket at him. The boys laughed and sighed happily. I was home.
“You better catch some sleep Boss. I’ll take the first shift “, Dan offered, crunching on some Frito’s.
“You don’t have to tell me twice.” I smiled, and he smiled in return. My heart did that silly girl thing where it flutters in your chest. His smile was nice. I was quickly asleep in my roll, peacefully. I knew that I was safe with the boys watching me.
The night passed quickly and quietly, nothing of interest to make our night take a turn for the worse. We each took our shifts, sleeping soundly, watching diligently. We put up our bed rolls, and ate a breakfast catered by Little Debbie. The floor was littered in little plastic wrappers by the time we were done.
My eyes found the dead body in the corner. In a way, this poor soul had saved our lives. Seeing him slumped in the corner, buried in nothing but a thick coat of dried blood, my heart felt uneasy. Before we did anything, we had to do something for him. I pulled my U-tool from the bag. The boys watched me in curiosity as I unfolded the military grade shovel.
“What’s up, Boss?” Dan watched my every move, trying to read me. He was pretty good at it.
“Josh,” I read off the dead boy’s name tag. “He deserves something better than this.”
“He’s dead, Boss.” Luke said coldly. “When did you become the sentimental type?” I glared him down, and he quickly looked to the floor in shame. I knew he wouldn’t understand.
“Maybe you should stay inside Luke, you’re looking really pale.” My voice was cold, harsher than normal, perhaps even a little mean. I regret it as I said it. With that said, I went outside, Dan following behind me with his own tools.
“I love you.” However, the words fell on deaf ears. His skin had gone cold; his cheeks had lost the pinkish hue I had come to love so much. His lips were bluish, chapped in his days of sickness that had ripped his life from him. A week ago, he had been fine. His long hair flowing in the breeze as we drove with the windows down. A week ago we kissed, we laughed, we loved. A week ago he was mine and just like that he wasn’t anymore.
I caressed his pale face, ran my fingers over his nose, down his chin. I closed his glossy green eyes. The smile drained from them. Sleeping now, only sleeping. He would wake up and take me into his arms and kiss me and call me his baby girl. Even though it was a lie, it was easier to look at him that way.
I almost kissed him goodbye, but thought better of it. I didn’t want our last kiss to be unable to be returned, a sour memory. I would leave my heart where it was good. I would leave him in the good days. My memories would stay with the sneak peeks in the shower, stealing bites of my ice cream, kissing my nose.
I collapsed in the chair. I slowly played with the ring on my finger, watching the inscription fade as the light hit it at different angles. “Till Death Do Us Part” Despite my protests, the tears rushed in a wave of mourning that was unavoidable. There was nothing graceful about it. Not like in the movies, where she sits in the seat, silently crying for her loved ones. My nose leaked more than my eyes did, my voice a watery wail of defeat. My hands shook, finding security pulling my own hair to the point of pain. My body shook with the sobs; my heart broke with the sniffles. My love for him grew with every sunrise, my mourning deepened with every sunset. Time went on regardless. Every day the sun sets, and every day it rises again.
To dig a proper grave would take all day, we didn’t dig it as deep as I would have liked. Hours later, dirt covered and sticky with sweat we had finished our task. I watched Dan finish his last few heaves of his shovel. His caramel back glistened in the midday sun, his dark hair glued to his penciled face, sweat running into his dark eyes.
“Think that ought to do it, Boss?” Dan asked climbing out of the hole.
“I think it’s going to have to,” I shot him a smirk and offered him a hand out of the hole. His strong calloused hand took mine. They matched. Both scared, working hands. His felt good in my hand. I quickly averted my gaze.
We walked inside to give Josh, the cashier, a more suiting grave. Luke was sleeping on the floor, his rolled up sleeping bag, supporting his head. The extra sleep would be good for him; perhaps it would rid him of this illness he was threatening to catch.
Josh had been here a while. The stench of rotting flesh had long left his skin. Moving him to the shallow grave behind the shop proved to be tedious. We did our best to piece him back together as his fragile body broke in our hands. We packed the dirt around him in silence. This was our eulogy. We didn’t know him, but this silence showed our respect.
As we were looking over our job well done, a battering crash came from within the store. Not a word had to be said. We quickly pulled our guns from the ground, clicking them into gear. A perfect team, side by side, we stormed into the store. I lowered my gun quickly. It wasn’t a scavenger. It was something much more terrifying.
Luke laid on the ground, thrashing, twitching in ways no human should be able to twitch. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. I didn’t rush to his aid like I should have. Terror ran ice cold through my veins and glued me to my spot. Dan was quickly at his side, holding his head, trying to keep him still. He didn’t weep, he did anything but, pleading with his friend to calm down. Finally Luke fell still. There was a horrifying moment of silence.
“Is he still breathing,” I finally managed to speak. My voice felt small and weak. Dan nodded slowly.
“He has a pulse too.” he assured me. We worked quickly to lay him back on his bed roll. Not a word was exchanged, we were afraid it would jinx it.
“Does he have a history of seizures?” Dan asked. I shook my head.
“Not that I’m aware, I’ve never seen him do anything like that.” I took a seat and sighed loudly. “He hasn’t looked well the last couple of days.” I couldn’t make myself tell him. I couldn’t say it out loud. I couldn’t find the words to say, ‘ He’s caught the illness. My husband did that the day before he died.’ I think he knew it by the look on my face, he had seen enough people die to know.
“Should we check him? For you know…” I didn’t answer, but crawled over to Luke’s sleeping form and unbuttoned his shirt. His arms and torso were clean. I looked at his pants, “Do you want to do the honors?” I gave a fake smirk, regaining my composure. He gave me a playful glare and my world suddenly felt significantly better. He pushed his pant legs up and checked his legs. Clear.
“I doubt They would have gone much further up.” We both laughed. Dan took my hand in both of his. “It’s going to be okay, Boss.”
“I know. He is stronger than he looks.” I gazed down on his face, sleeping peacefully now. Night was not far off.
“What’s the plan, Boss? We can’t stay here forever.”
“I know, if we stay here much longer, They’ll swarm this place…” I took a deep breath. “…but we can’t leave tonight. Not with Luke out of commission.”
“Boss…what if he is not better by morning?” His eyes held sadness, but determination. Whatever my next sentence was he would follow it.
“We will decide then, but we won’t stay here any longer than it is safe to do so.” He nodded. We would leave him if we had to. We had to look out for ourselves; Luke wouldn’t want us to die for him.
“There’s the Boss we know and love.” Dan winked at me.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” My voice had its old cold sound. Dan knew better.
“You are my strength.” He pushed a strand of hair from my face. Chills crept across my skin. “Even if I know most of the time it is only for show. I need you.”
“Believe it or not, you’re mine too.” My voice was a whisper. I’m sure he heard me, but he didn’t respond. He walked to the store room and grabbed a couple cans of soup. He threw one in my direction.
“Eat up Boss; it’s going to be a long night.”
I had never felt pain like that before. Kicked, beaten, ribs broken, lying in the sidewalk. I could barely hear the sounds of my house being ransacked over the ringing in my ears. Blood had soaked into my hair, stained my thighs. My eyes were so swollen from the bruising that I almost didn’t see him coming. At first he was a pair of combat boots. The polished black leather shone from the street light. His hand hurt at the touch, but I didn’t have the strength to cry out. He pushed my head to the side, placing his cold fingers on my throat, feeling for a pulse.
“My god, you are still alive.” He knelt down and made me look at him. I remember seeing his dark caramel skin for the first time. His hair was shorter then, cleaner. His eyes were a storm cloud, dark, menacing, dangerous, rage bellowing like winds beneath the surface.
“Can you hear me?” I couldn’t answer. “Blink, once for yes, twice for no.” I obliged, slowly blinking the one eye that wasn’t matted shut. The crash from my house alerted him.
“Is that your house?” I blinked again; slowly, painfully. “Did they do this to you?” It took a while, but I finally croaked one word.
“Yes.” I blacked out shortly after. When I came to, I was in my bed, in clean clothes. I was bandaged and braced, and taken care of, but couldn’t move right away. Apparently my groans and cussing alerted him. He was quickly by my side, fussing over me and telling me to take it easy.
Dan never would tell me what happened to the men who did that to me that night. Only that I didn’t have to worry about them anymore. The freshly dug earth in my back yard assured me of that. Bless his heart. He is delusional, thinking he needs me…when I wouldn’t be alive without him.
I woke up to screaming. It took a moment to shake the sleep off and grab my shot gun. When the scene became clear, all hesitation was gone.
Luke had Dan on the ground, his blood on his lips, his flesh in his mouth. The illness had gotten him, too. I didn’t think twice. The shotgun round in Luke’s skull stilled his rage. Crimson stained the room. Thick syrupy blood spilled from his cranium, drowning him in it. Dan pushed him off, he shook with adrenaline.
“Damn.” He held his shoulder. “I thought we checked him for bites…” I kicked Luke over and pulled his shoe off. His foot was infected, bitten, bleeding through his sock.
“He had to get new shoes about a week back. I completely forgot.” I chucked ironically, angrily.
Dan pulled his hand back, blood spilled from it at a dangerous rate.
“Let me patch that up.” I dug in my bag, looking for the first aid supplies.
“Don’t bother, Boss.” His voice was kind. I knew what he was suggesting.
“No.” My words were no longer a suggestion, but an order. A frantic, scared, desperate order.
“No Dan, I won’t let you die. There has to be another way, something we can do.”
“Boss…” this time he was soft and comforting, like he was addressing a small child. “…you know better than I do that there is nothing we can do from here.”
“I won’t let you do this.”
“Who is going to watch your back, Boss? Huh? Who is going to take my bite for you?” I stared at the floor, knowing he was right but doing everything in my power not to accept it.
“I don’t want to lose you.”
“But it has to be this way; you know it has to be this way.” I couldn’t say it, but I nodded. “I need you to do it, Boss.” I gave him a horrified look.
“Dan, I can’t…”
“I would do it myself, but I don’t think I would go through with it.” He smiled at me. It was a sweet, sad smile, filled with all the potential we could have had. “Please?” he finally asked. I slowly picked my gun off the ground.
“Damn it, Dan, I’ve always loved you,” It didn’t change anything. It fixed nothing, but at least I would never regret not saying it.
“I know, Boss.”
The shot ripped my ear drums as the sound echoed through the empty building. He fell limply, like every other body I had ever shot, like every other man I had ever loved. I felt both of my boys for pulses. They were both dead. They were never coming back. I quickly packed up and got ready to leave.
Every day the sun sets, and every day the sun rises again. Time would keep moving on.