1. AND THEN THEY WERE THREE…
THEY SAY, “THE night is darkest just before the dawn.” Beautiful, though a cliché. It makes me imagine a rising sun on a burning horizon. I think of a glimpse of morning light, of hope, after all seemed lost. I think of a phoenix soaring towards the new born dawn. Leaving a trail of glowing ashes. But there won’t be a dawn.
This is the time of the eternal night. The sun disappeared months ago, and it won’t light up the sky for many more weeks to come. Even then, the light merely breaks through dark, heavy clouds, barely able to divide night from day. The sky is thick. So thick, the air underneath this blanked of ash and dust hurts to breath in. You cling to every breath you can find, as if it was your child. Your most precious accomplishment. When you have to let go of it, you always seem to lose just a little more of yourself.
Desperate way to live.
The ground beneath me burns the skin of my bare feet. Every step is sticking to the asphalt. Strange, how this heat engulfs my body like a whisper from hell, while there has been almost no sun since the bombs fell. I don’t pretend to understand any of this. Why the bombs came, or how this heat can still be there. After the fallout, we all feared a nuclear winter. All of us that survived. Instead, the wind came and brought nothing but unrelenting heat. Without sunlight, fresh water, and a fiery storm sweeping through the lands and cities, most vegetation withered. Many more died. Burnt, or worse, starved. To this day, those waves of heat appear. And always do they bring the dark months with them. And with the night comes more death.
God knows how I ended up so lucky. I guess God also knew this was coming. Maybe this was his plan. Mankind driven to the edge of their own existence. Driven to madness, to war. Ultimately, eradication. All through our own hand. Maybe the flood, too, was man’s own doing. Something we’ve created as punishment, while our maker watched and did nothing. Maybe, though, it’s all but a cosmic joke. A bump in the eternal timeline of the universe. Unnoticed. Unimportant.
Whatever the case, I need to keep going. I owe it to the little boy on my back. He’s holding on tightly, as I stumble through this concrete wasteland. I grit my teeth against the flashlight in my mouth. It’s starting to flicker and die.
The boy says, “Can we stop, Sarah?”
No, we can’t.
He says, “I’m hungry. And we need to change the batteries of the flashlight. I think we have one more left in the backpack, right?”
No, we don’t. We’ve been cycling batteries through the flashlight for days. All of them but a spark away from being completely drained. Soon, we will be lost in total darkness. I have to keep going. March on. Find shelter. Something, at least, with the illusion of safety. Better yet, with forgotten supplies. Food and water.
As I drag my corpse of a body further down the road, I untwist the water bottle I’ve been holding on to with both hands for the last half hour or so. Time doesn’t really matter much anymore, I guess. There’s barely enough for one of us left. I hand him the bottle over my shoulder.
Through the flashlight between my teeth, I mumble, “Take it. Till we find more.” I know we won’t. But I have to keep moving. I owe him that much.
“I’VE FOUND SOMEONE!” He’s speaking through the radio. “Alive, barely. Unconscious.”
I walk up to him slowly. With every step, the loose connection somewhere in the wiring of my night vision goggles makes the image flicker. Every so often, I lose the picture between blinks of my eye. Still better than flashlights. They attract unwanted people. Or worse.
Mitch has found a woman. We’ve followed a weak light we’ve made out in the distant. A flashlight, maybe, when it started to flicker. The light disappeared, but we managed to find her regardless. Seems she collapsed in the middle of the street. She’s barely wearing any cloths, and what little is covering her, does so with but a thread or two. She must have been marching out here for days. No sign of anybody else. She doesn’t carry any useful supplies. Just a backpack full of used batteries and empty water bottles. I assume the batteries are long dead. This is how it happens to the people left out here by themselves. No matter how strong they push, how far they come; in the end, they’ll die. She is lucky we’ve found her.
“Pick her up,” I say. “Let’s get moving. We can look after her once we’re back at-”
I hear a noise somewhere around us. It’s breaking the near unbearable silence. After the wind has gone, leaving nothing but a sticking heat, most things died out here. There’s hardly any background noise left. Most electronics were fried. Most urban wildlife died. This noise, like softly treading feet, is unusually out of place. Mitch is going to say something. I stop him with a raised fist. I look around. Damn, even if my goggles wouldn’t be malfunctioning, the resolution of the image is extremely low. All I can make out are traces and outlines of the things around me.
There it is again. This time the steps are closer. Mitch is quiet. He knows the drill. Whenever we’re on a patrol outside, we may encounter the odd and rare wild animal. If that happens, we have to be quiet. We only get one shot at this. One shot, and the entire neighbourhood will be alerted to our presence. And you never know what horror lurks in the darkness. But it’s worth the risk. Worth the kill. It can feed us for weeks.
Again, the noise. Steps are circling me. I focus, hold my breath. My vision cuts out for a heartbeat, and as it comes back, there’s a body in front of me. Standing maybe three feet tall, I can’t make out what it is. All I see is a signature of a body and green-grey static flickering. It doesn’t matter. I shoot.
I SCREAM. THE anxiety takes away my breath. My heart pounds against my chest, echoes in my forehead.
I yell, “Where is he!” My fists drop against his chest like tiny water droplets on a window.
“Where is the boy!”
“We don’t know,” the man says. He’s putting his hands around my shoulder. Is he trying to calm me, or subdue me? Again, I yell in his face. Again, I punched onto his chest as if it would make a difference. Get my point across.
I can’t let him down. I promised him safety. He needs me. And I need him. I owe him this, because he saved my life.
It takes me forever to calm down. Eventually, I realize, I won’t have much of choice but to believe him. If nothing else, these men scraped me off the streets and brought me into their shelter. Gave me water and clean clothing. I’ve never worn a coverall before. It feels strange to have my skin not exposed to the dry, hot air.
He’s offering me a cigarette. I didn’t think you could find those anymore. This, I guess, shows me his sincerity. These things must be like gold nowadays.
“Thanks,” I say with a pause. With a match, he lights it. I can feel my eyes light up together with the fire, while I look at his face.
“Nathan,” he says, “name’s Nathan.”
He’s handsome, I admit. Chestnut-brown eyes surrounded by deep wrinkles. Worn and tired. A smile that isn’t quite a smile. His presence says he’s seen things. Too many, too dangerous things. He’s dirty, wearing a coverall himself. Under his shoulder, he’s carrying a handgun. I’m not sure if he is some sort of ex-military or police officer, or a thug with a gun and more luck than honour.
“I met him a few weeks ago,” I tell him with smoke in my lungs. I exhale slowly and enjoy every bit of it. Strange, how this is so satisfying, all the while each of us is struggling to breath the toxic air around us. I guess pleasure is a matter of perspective and addiction.
“He found me, I should say. I was left for dead by my own family.” I don’t know why I’m so honest to a stranger with a handgun. A stranger I tried so desperately to beat to pulp not even thirty minutes ago.
“He gave me food and water. I remember it more like a haze, a dream of a dream kind of thing. I didn’t realize he’s given me his last rations.” The stranger lights his own cigarette. The struggling flame of the match throws a helpless, fighting shadow across his face. His eyes are fixed on me. The air hisses with his smoking cigarette.
He says, “And you two’ve been together ever since. Fighting the odds, moving from shelter to shelter.”
“Sounds about right.” This was pretty much the story. He gave me the last of his supplies. He was there when everybody else abandoned me. I never knew of his past. Not even his name. I simply never asked. All that mattered was that we’d make it to some sort of safety. He’s too young to indulge in the tragedies of his too young past.
“You’re safe here, Sarah. We have some supplies. Sparse, but it’ll do. We sent out patrols daily, looking for more rations. Batteries, chargers.”
“That’s great,” I say, and get up. “I need to go and find him. He must have been scared when I blacked out. He can’t have gone too far. I’m certain there’s still a chance I can-”
He cuts me off. “No. It’s too dangerous. There’s more out there than a hot wind and darkness. Crazies,” he says with eyes narrowed to slots, “and other things. If you leave, you won’t return.” He sounds extremely concerned for someone, who just met me.
His friend, Mitch, stays silent. His forehead is wrinkled, covered partially by his dark hair. The beard on his face is shaggy, not taken care of. His look is rough, rustic. Former muscles turned into little bumps of sagging fat, giving away his age and some lack of personal care. He’s looking at me with a strange mood in his eyes. It’s all over his face. As if he’s tasting regret on his tongue, biting his lip with sorrow. Staying silent.
“What is it?” He know’s something. “Why are you looking at me like this?” The man before me lets the smoke escape his nose with a deep sigh. Slowly I back off, glaring at Nathan.
“You know something. You know where he is, don’t you?”
“No. I don’t.” He turns around and leaves the room. Mitch shakes his head slightly at me. His eyes say ‘sorry’. Then he leaves, too.
HE SAYS, “I know you want to, Mitch, but you can’t tell her.”
Hell I can’t.
“She won’t trust us, if you do. And we need her.” Though he has a point, maybe this is going too far. Hell, while I saved her from the brink of death, he accidentally shot her little friend. Son. Whatever the hell he was to her. Maybe we shouldn’t make her go through an even worse hell than she’s already been through.
I follow him to what we labeled the ‘communication room’. Here, we store all the radio and cell equipment we can find, fixing and tuning it. This is how we stay in touch with the other cells. The network of survivors.
He picks up the radio, pushes a few buttons. Turning a knob, flipping a switch. “Delta Camp, respond. Over.” A few seconds of static. He just looks at me.
“Delta Camp. What’s up Beta? Over.” The other end crackles and breaks through the old speakers.
“Hey Delta, we’ve found something. Precious. Female. Worn out and starved, but more than passable for trade. Over.”
This is what we do. Supplies are sparse. We can’t shelter just anybody. But we can trade for some of them. More supplies, fuel, electricity. Fresh water is worth a lot. So are smokes. A young woman like Sarah would pay for a lot of these things. In trade, she’ll end up with some of the few rich people left. Some disgusting, fat, warmongering private corporate asshole on the top of the food chain. A king amongst us mercenaries and beggars. Makes you wonder whether they instigated this whole mess to begin with to gain the ultimate control.
Nathan looks at me. He smiles. “That’s the best bounty, yet.”
He disgusts me. We’re profiting off the misery of others. The few that survived the blasts, the bombs, and the yet stranger heat waves. Instead of banding together to push through this man-made hell, we’re split up into little camps and groups. Cannibalizing, trafficking, and exploiting each other. God damn it. Things never change. Not even a nuclear holocaust forces people to wake up. Instead, the noose tightens even more around the neck of the undeserving, unprivileged bastards like Sarah. The folks that just try to survive. Whether it’s from pay check to pay check, or from water bottle to water bottle. We’ve regressed to a literal dark age. An eternal night. Damned by the rich. Forsaken by hope. Controlled by fear. I feel this bottling up inside of me. What can I do? What can one man do? I once swore to serve and protect. So did Nathan. Now we just serve.
“Beta Camp, sorry for the delay. Still there? Over.”
He clicks the button and waits out the bundle of static noise. “Yes, Delta. So, want to meet and assess the goods?” He laughs. “Over.”
Of course they do.
IT SEEMS I’M not much safer here than I was outside. The door is locked. I’m stuck in this room, which isn’t more than a closet. The shelves are empty except for a few almost burned down candles. At least I have a chair and a bottle of dirty water. Fine grains of sand stick to the roof of my mouth.
I need to get out. Go find the boy. Again, the strangling sensation of panic and anxiety tramples through my body. Crawls over my skin. Challenges my pulse to reach new heights. There has to be something in this room to help me out. I push aside shelves, knock over empty boxes. Searching, rambling, I turn this room up-side-down. I kick over the chair, frustrated, as if it would solve all the worlds problems. It collapses and the backrest comes loose. Only a few screws were holding this chair together. I put them into my pocket. Then, after my frustration and anger have been projected to the room around me, and I calm down slowly, I can only wait.
The lock on the door snaps open. I jump up quickly. I’d like to be ready for whatever comes next, but I honestly have no idea what I’m doing here. In comes nobody, the door doesn’t even open.
Only a muffled voice. “We made some food. If you’re hungry. Down the hall, to your right.” Can’t say I’m even considering to resist. I open the door and walk down the hallway.
I make my way down the small corridor. First door to my right leads to what seems to be a hall of some sort. It’s filled bunk beds, mattresses and stretches. Most of them seem not used. The opening to the left is missing its door. Behind it is a statue of Jesus nailed to a cross. Seems like I’m sheltered in an abandoned church. How fitting. Most benches are collapsed. The roof is partially cracked open, letting rain of acid and ash trickle down the walls, staining everything in rust-brown. Footsteps of mud cover the floor. A god-forsaken place. Only our lord and saviour stands tall amidst the devastation. Hangs from the burden he bore and suffers in eternity.
I follow the smell of burned propane and old coffee. God, how I miss a good cup of coffee. Bitter, yet vitalizing. The warmth spreading from my tongue down to my stomach. Filling every inch of my body with a sacred energy. Like rising from the ashes of last night, reborn into the next morning. An aroma I’ve almost forgotten.
I count six people in the kitchen. Nathan and Mitch are sitting at the table. Two people, older men, standing before two big boiling pots over a propane stove. Two women with short hair and sweat stains on their shirts are both filling tin mugs with gooey dark fluid. I hope that’s coffee. The top of their coveralls are tight around their waste, exposing slender, yet strong arms. Broad shoulders. A tattoo of the US Flag. They almost look like twins, but one is a good six inches taller than the other. They sit down next to Nathan and Mitch, not even paying attention to me.
Nathan looks up, stirring in his bowl with a plastic spoon. “Sarah. Join us.” He hints at the women. “Cathy and Jo.”
I nod their way. They don’t care.
“And they,” he says, pointing at the cooks, “are Robert and Donny.” One of the man turns around, rubs his hands on his coverall a few times and stretches his grimy fingers out.
“Call me Bobby,” he says. He smiles and exposes but a few rotten teeth. He seems nice. I shake his hands, figuring I can’t catch anything worse at this point.
“Sarah,” I say. He turns back around and fills a bowl full of runny soup and some pieces of dark meat. No vegetables. No spices. Just broth and unidentifiable meat. I haven’t had real food in weeks. Jars without labels. Candy bars. Yet, here I am complaining in my head about the lack of variety in this soup. I thank him and take the bowl.
“Is that coffee?” I ask, pointing at the metal jug on the counter next to him.
He looks at it for a second, then looks back at me. “Yes, yes. Something like that.” I grab one of the metal mugs and watch the gooey, thick and tar-like substance slowly make its way into my cup. Lukewarm. Old and stale. I can’t wait.
I barely get to sit down, when Nathan starts talking. “We’ll leave in the morning. Looking for your boy. You need rest, first. As do we.”
I taste the soup. It reminds me of chicken, though I can’t be certain.
“I know you want to go right now. I understand. But you were out for hours already.” Hours? I lost all sense for time. It’s always dark. Most watches stopped working after the fallout. I have no idea what time or day it is. Just a rough sense of weeks passing by. Maybe months. I don’t even quite understand what he means by ‘morning’.
“If he didn’t stick around in the area,” Nathan says after finishing his bowl, “he’d be long gone. If he stayed close, found shelter somewhere, we might be able to find him. At this point, though, he could be anywhere and, at the same time, nowhere.” He gets up and throws his dish and spoon into the sink. “We’ll try soon. Get rest. You’ll need it.”
I look over to Mitch. He avoids eye contact. The broth tastes rancid, like the acidic, hot rain does. The cooks sat down and are eating now. The soldier women keep to themselves. The hot soup burns in the corner of my mouth, setting the cracks and splits in my dry lips nearly aflame. Maybe Nathan is right. Being half-dead and not rested won’t help me finding the boy. I chew the hard, half-rotten pieces of dark meat, force some thick coffee down my throat. Ill-equipped and alone I stand no chance out there. The taste of spoiled chicken and tar will haunt me for a long time to come. I’ll have to wait and take their offer to help me in the morning. Whatever that means.
SHE WALKS UP to the statue, runs her hand up its leg.
“Do you believe? I mean…” she pauses. First looking down, than she looks at me. “I mean, in God? A god. Any god. Could this be the end as so many cultures have feared?”
Nonsense. I walk up to her. Tapping the knuckle of my finger against the statue of Jesus, I say, “If there’d ever be a second coming, Sarah, he’ll be surprised at what he’ll find.” I go and sit on the front-row bench.
I say, “No. I don’t. Believe, I mean. This isn’t some sort of divine plan. There’s no greater purpose. It’s a massacre. Man-made hell. It only rides on greed and terror, not virtues and sins.”
“Dark,” she says. She sits down next to me. I offer another smoke. Down to twelve cigarettes.
“What about you?”
She sighs. Then she falls silent. I listen to the sizzle of her cigarette.
Moments pass. We spend a few quiet minutes together. As if the world stands still. It stopped worrying about it’s own decay. As if we knew peace.
Her voice cracks. She swallows, clears her throat, and tries again. “Why was the door locked?”
I look up. “Sorry?”
“The door. The closet. My, I guess, bedroom?” She pauses, pulls her shoulders back until a loud crack and pop sounds from between her shoulder blades. “Am I prisoner? Then why help me find the boy? C’mon, Nathan. Don’t play games.”
She has no idea. She doesn’t know of the trade. What awaits her. She thinks this is the worst thing that could have happened to her. Running into a ragtag band of survivors. But none of that matters. The meet is arranged. She’s going to be handed over to the delta camp tomorrow in exchange for food, water and fuel. From there, she’ll be traded upwards, until she ends up in the city. Ends up with some rich politician. As concubine, or something. I don’t know. Don’t care. Don’t want to know.
“No,” I say, “you’re not a prisoner. It’s a closet. A supply chamber. Pantry. The door locks by itself when it falls shut. Usually, we don’t keep people in there. It just seemed to be the best place to keep you at that time. Nothing personal. Your actual bed will be set up in the community hall. We have some stretches, bunk beds and mattresses. Whatever we could salvage.”
Of course, this is true. Except, she was supposed to stay in there until we head out in the morning. But I figured it’ll be easier if she co-operates willingly. Thinks us friendly until the end. It’s all a big deception. A guy’s gotta eat.
Of course, I don’t tell her any of that.
“Well,” she says, “didn’t think that through very well, have you?” More than you think. I pretend to chuckle. Make it seem funny. She laughs, too, but there’s something sad in her voice. Almost as if she hasn’t had a chance to laugh in a very long time. Hasn’t had a reason for it.
“Sorry ’bout that.” She nods and exhales deeply.
“Who are these people?” She changes the subject. Good.
“An odd mix of characters,” I say. It long since stopped to matter who anybody really was before all of this happened. The only important thing now is what you’re willing to become to survive. What you offer the group.
“Mitch. You two know each other from before, don’t you?”
I say, “Yes. We do. Police force.” I jump up, stretch out. Walking towards the door, I say, “We’ll talk later, Sarah. Get some rest.”
She says, “Okay, Nathan. And-” she pauses, looks down to her feet. I stop and look over my shoulder. Then she looks up, sincere, honest. “Thank you.”
Don’t thank me yet. I nod and leave.