Stray Cats Have No Place Here
She scuffed the bottom of her shoe on the porous concrete floor and let out an audible sigh. There was no one there that could spare any sympathy on her, however—they were all nursing their own wounds, both physical and emotional—so the pitiful sound was left unheard. She felt very much alone, though the room was full to bursting with people of all sorts. It was hard to believe that these were only the leftovers of her city—those who had been unwilling to leave when everyone else had.
Wandering the crowded halls of what had once been the civic center of her city just barely managed to distract her from the haunting thoughts that had infested her mind for the past few days. Her thoughts had grown even grimmer as time went on, and when the onslaught of information assaulted her that very day (so many things had happened to her that day, indeed), she found it to be almost unbearable. She wanted to weep, yet she resisted the urge.
This was very strange from her, though. She was not the type of girl to hide her emotions stubbornly, and she was not the type to hold everyone in as if in defiance of what the definition of a girl usually is. She was, in fact, quite weak and quite common. She was prone to tears and irrational rants of anger, and was easily offended by even the most mundane insults. But she was different lately.
Many say that trauma can change someone. Sometimes it makes them stronger, and sometimes it makes them weaker. But it was premature, at this point, to tell which way this girl would go. It was no secret, however, that she had gone through so very much in such a small frame of time.
With her head down, she wandered throughout the throngs of people, mumbling an "excuse me" whenever she bumped into someone. She wasn't going anywhere in particular. There was no place for her to go at all. She simply wandered in the hope that she would find something, be it beneficial or simply amusing. She had to have something to do. She needed it. It was a requirement. It was…it was something to distract her from her tormenting thoughts.
She did not notice the boy, probably a few years older than her, until she had walked right into him.
"Oh," he said detachedly, for he himself had been quite distracted as well, and stabilized her before she could fall back onto a group of squatters. "Sorry about that."
The girl smiled, grateful to be spoken to and ignorant of being bumped into, and kindly moved out of his path. "No, it was my fault," she said, her way of thanking him.
He nodded and went on his way, though he hesitated when she frowned at him. Her expression was troubling—lost, unsure of what to do, depressed. He was only able to walk a few steps further before he stopped and turned around. He examined her—she had yet to turn away from him—and realized that she was wearing nothing more than silken pajamas and a pair of old house shoes. He, himself, was carrying a large rucksack of full of odds and ends, and he flushed with the desire to be helpful.
"Aren't you cold?" he asked.
Her thoughts had wandered since their encounter, which had really only been seconds before, and she jumped when he spoke. "What!?" she exclaimed.
"Aren't you cold?" he repeated.
She nodded, too unstable to be dismissive or polite. "Just a bit."
His head bobbed up once, in regard to her response, and he threw his rucksack on the ground carelessly before rummaging through it for a few seconds. He pulled out a small blanket—triumphant, though a little upset that it was not something more comfortable for her—and benevolently handed it to her. He watched her reaction as he hoisted his rucksack back onto his shoulder.
"Wow!" she exclaimed with all the innocence of a child untouched by misfortune, turning it over in her hands before she put it around her shoulders like a cape. "Thank you very much."
He beamed, proud of his good deed, and started to turn away once more.
"Wait!" she cried.
He stopped once more and looked to her inquisitively, his face showing all the sings of the inner question, "What is it this time?"
"Um…" she tried, fidgeting with the ends of the blanket, "I don't really have anywhere to go, and none of my family is here…" She looked up at him helplessly. "And you don't look like you're with anyone else."
"Sorry to make assumptions!" she said quickly. "It's just…" She shook her head. "No, I'm sorry."
He thought about it for a second. Really, he could see no harm in helping her out. They had both become rejects of large congregation. Him because he had no family with him and he was nothing more than a scrawny teenage boy, her because she had no family with her and she showed the signs of being chronically ill. Both of them were the type of people no one wanted underfoot, and it was understandable that they were rejects… It made sense for them to unite, for even the unwanted have to stay strong and make it through a time of crisis. It was almost like another challenge added to his long list of them, only this one seemed like less of a burden. Not to mention there was something very interesting about the girl, whose eyes shone an unnatural color and whose body seemed too frail to be able to stand there meekly yet bravely.
"I guess," he finally said with a shrug of his shoulders. "Umm…What's yer name?"
She blushed. She had once before been asked that question, yet she had no answer to give. She was not an orphan, and she was not suffering from amnesia, yet she did not know something as simple as that. She knew, at least, her last name, but her first name had not been uttered in so long that she couldn't summon forth anything close to a recollection of hearing it being said to her. It was embarrassing and pathetic, and she didn't want to suffer from the shame that she had when she first told that woman, who looked at her as if she was insane from that point on. (And she was not insane!) She grappled for an answer before he mistook her silence as reluctance.
"I can't do you
any harm by knowing your name," he told her with a chuckle. It
was too late, he already was making assumptions. "My name is
William—you can call me anything but 'Bill'. Now are you more
willing to tell me?"
Taking advantage of this, she shook her head. "No," she said in an artificially shy voice, "since you'll make fun of me. It's a terrible name."
"And William isn't bad?" he asked, laughing. It was such a common name, she knew, and he must have been subject to several nicknames that he did not want. "Well, I suppose I can understand it all the same. But, you know, I'm just going to have to make up a name for you if you don't give me your real one."
She smiled. "Well, go ahead then."
He laughed in disbelief. "You're really serious, aren't you?"
"Okay…" William thought before decided on something that would be so terrible that she would have to tell him her real name. "How about I call you Fish-Breath?"
She rolled her eyes. "Post apocalyptic or not, that was a rather weak insult. Can't you be more creative? Look, I'll tell you my last name, since there are several of us Reddings in this city, but you're getting nothing more than that."
"Nothing to go with that? I mean, it's pretty odd to call a girl 'Redding'. Most people who go by their last names are either on the football team or the basketball team. Er…not that girls can't be on those," he added, for he didn't know if he was insulting her or not.
She rolled her eyes, one habit that had been hers long before she had changed so drastically. "It's Redding or nothing."
He adjusted the weight of his rucksack from his arm back to his shoulder again, as it had been sinking slowly from his shoulder to his arm as they spoke, and chuckled. "You're very serious, then. Well…" He leaned in closer and looked into her eyes, which seemed to be changing from an ordinary green to a deep shade of crimson, creating a dazzling effect. "I'll call you Red, since your eyes so odd."
Her face turned pale. "What do you mean?" she demanded, reaching up to touch the pink flesh around her eyes.
"Well, they're red and green, aren't they?"
She, officially dubbed "Red" by the stranger named William, quickly came up with an answer so that she would not come off as insane. That was the main goal, after all. Though that woman was no longer around to express her opinion on the girl's sanity, the expression on her face when she told her that she did not know her own name had still been unbearable, and she doubted she could handle it again in the same day. She forced a compliant giggle out of herself (how such a reaction disgusted her!) and said, "Yeah, they are. You just threw me off. I mean, they're red and green, so I'd figure you'd say something like, 'Christmas!' or something…" She stowed away her initial confusion for a later time.
William smiled, recovering quickly. "A good one, but it might get confusing around the holi…" He stopped short and took to looking at their grim surroundings. "Guess we're not going to have many of those anymore."
Red—she quite liked the new name, though she wouldn't have before everything went so backwards—sighed and joined him in the observation of their predicament. She wanted to ask the various questions that she had tried to have answered by that woman, but she resisted the nearly overwhelming urge. It was too fishy. He would find it odd that she didn't know.
"No, not for a while, anyway." She had, at least, found experience in what was going on. Though nobody had ever told her, "This is happening to you because…" she still knew at least that it was something dangerous, and not to be reckoned with. She still didn't know how she had…
She shook away the thought of it.
William shoved his hands in his pockets and started to walk away. "Come on," he told her as he went, not even waiting for her to catch up.
"Where are we going?"
"I haven't a clue, but we might be able to find a place less crowded in the old cafeteria."
It was, indeed, a great deal less crowded than the hall that had once been grand, where everyone else was. The reason, however, was quite obvious as they came in. The entire room, big as it was, smelled of old onions. They debated staying there for several minutes.
"We can get used to the smell," he told her.
"We can get used to the noise," she told him.
"There's food in here," he pointed out.
"It's probably old," she reminded him.
This he agreed with, as it had been two weeks ago that the city-run buildings had been abandoned. He did point out that there was sure to be several cans of food, which would not expire for a long time.
"Couldn't we just take that food out of here and take it with us?" she asked.
"Yeah, we could. But I don't trust the people out there. Half of them are looters, and the rest of them reject us, though they are rejects themselves," William said, agitated by what he was saying. He shouldn't have to be so bitter at such a young age—that was what he was thinking.
"I don't know if I'm too partial to the idea of being in this room alone with a boy, though," she said, much to herself but loud enough for him to hear.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"It's your gender's fault—not yours." A wind full of bitter chill hit her, and she pulled the blanket tightly around her, which reminded her of his act of kindness. "But I suppose I can trust you," she added, nearly mumbling.
William laughed. "We might as well set up camp here until the government gives up on this town. It's safer to be away from the large crowds, and we can probably make a profit off of being where the food is."
"It's everyone's food," she reminded him.
"Yeah, it's everyone's food. But that doesn't mean we can't hoard it and live a little bit longer." Though he said it unintentionally, his face went pale at the mention of mortality. Red faired no better, for she had witnessed how frail humanity's grasp on life was just in that very day.
Red frowned. "I won't help you do it."
"Rejects got to stick together."
"I'm not a reject!" she exclaimed, mortified by his readiness to verbalize their uselessness.
He smiled apologetically and no longer pursued the topic. He didn't want to run her off when they had just made each other's acquaintance. Though she was weak and feeble, he figured she could have some use. And, if nothing else, she could at least be someone to talk to. He wasn't used to being so isolated. If he hadn't been the only one of his family to stay behind, he wouldn't be the reject that he was, and that bothered him a great deal. He had the desire to form a pack, though it was in shambles.
The side of the cafeteria closets to the foot, they decided, smelled too strongly of onions for them to set up camp at. They ended up making a ramshackle tent-like structure in the small room that was cut off from the man building by a removable wall, as it blocked out most of the smell and gave them the advantage of solitude. The silence was a great gift compared to the havoc of the main room, which was so full of noise and discourse that it was difficult to think even fiendish thoughts amongst it all. Even the old Red—she must have had a different name—would have disliked it in there.
It was something to be mentioned, the feeling of alienation from herself. Red felt as if she had been taken out of her body and then put back in it the wrong way, like the essence of her foot was where her essence of her head should be, and vice versa. She was confused. With all the other crap she had to deal with, there was also the fact that she didn't feel like the way she used to be. Was in the sudden insight that changed her, or the sudden horrors? Was it temporary? Would she transform back into the sickly yet shallow creature she had once been as soon as the world went back to normal, if ever at all?
It was too confusing, and she soon gave up the train of the thought not too long after she had originally picked it up.
There was, she could not deny, too many things going on at once for her to focus on her mental standpoint. So long as she wasn't losing her mind—and she was rather certain that she could still think rationally—then it would be just fine.
She would just have to trust in the William that she had encountered.
It would have been nice to start a fire when night started to claw at comfort of the room, but they were trapped inside. It was almost humorous how helpless humans were without their precious, precious electricity to light the way. Some of the lucky ones had been smart enough to bring electric torches, and some of the smart ones had been lucky enough to remember to grab a few backs of batteries. At least one had brought a lantern with him—an outdoorsman type—and its gas-powered glow kept many people in the southernmost corner of the crowded room very happy.
William had asserted that they would be staying in that room, though, even if it was dark. It wasn't like either of them had anything they wanted to do. There was nothing in his bag that could prove entertaining, nighttime or not, and Red had nothing with her.
Both of them sat near each other, simply for the human contact, and spoke of random things that made the time pass more efficiently than silence. They had had a simple dinner of canned peaches, which satisfied neither and made both of their stomachs turn. Neither of them had been able to sleep, as they both seemed to have things weighing on their minds.
Red figured that she would fall asleep there, and seemed content to listening him talk about how he used to be a head computer wiz at his school before it all started. "If it gets any worse, all my hard work will be for nothing. What good is computer knowledge without a computer to express it on?"
"You never know," she told him. "This might all turn out to be nothing." How easily she lied.
He saw through it, though. "You know it's going to get worse."
And, as if cued by his statement, their conversation was interrupted by the soul scream of a young woman. Her exclamation of terror was soon followed by the collective gasps and yelps of fear from the rest of the crowd. William was up before Red, who was lethargic, and he dashed out of the room before he could said anything gallant, like, "Stay here!" or "Stay out of harms way!"
She was up and after him soon, however, and she arrived just in time to see the horrors.
Strange, spectral creatures were floating through the air much like jellyfish would through the ocean, drifting across the room so gently that it was hard to believe that they were such villains. Red had encountered them once before, and she froze as soon as she saw them.
She watched as one drifted through a woman (much like a ghost!). When it entered her, she was screaming. When he parted with her, she was nothing more than a lifeless corpse. They were like miniature grim reapers; taking the lives of others so mindlessly that Red could not even force herself to be angered by the murder they committed.
It was not the same for everyone else, however. Those who were not in shock by the blatant murder were busying themselves by trying to be rid of the awful creatures. Some of them, though, were not so lucky, and they ended up killing themselves. It seemed that having contact with the creatures was what caused the death. Most of them wised up to this as soon as the first few fell, and they started to use whatever object they could.
But such methods were ineffective. The specters seemed to be impervious to anything that a human could use. It soon became very clear to everyone in the room that the last place they needed to be was where these floating objects were.
William, who had been amongst those trying to save lives, came from the rush of fleeing people and grabbed her wrist. "Let's get out of here!" he told her.
Red didn't object.
He looked for a way out of, but the crowd was much like a roaring ocean. He decided on backtracking, and he quickly dragged her back to the cafeteria.
"Are we safe here?" she asked, panting. She was tired without reason, for she had been still while he was active. William had his hands on his knees and was trying to regain his breath. She had not seen it happen, but he had been knocked down and had the wind knocked out of him a few minutes before, when one of the attempting heroes fell back on him. He was worn and spent, and it was hard for him to think properly.
"…No…" he said finally, once he was able to speak. "But at least they haven't gotten here yet. Besides, we were more at risk trying to get out in that panic than we would be locked in a room alone with ten of those things."
Red nodded. "Guess so."
The sound of screaming and frantic, terrified people started to die down, and they both stood there in silence for a good minute before William decided to be in charge again. "We should get out of here," he said.
Red shook her head this time. "No. I think we should stay here."
exasperated. "For what reason?" He pointed to the once crowed
room. "That room over there is full of dead bodies. Do you really
want to deal with that stink in the coming days?"
"Well, no…" she said. "But where else can we go?"
He threw up his hands.
"I don't know!"
She frowned. "No point in arguing about it." She walked over to the small camp they had created and sat down on the scant blanket he had given her. "I'm not going anywhere at night, and it's that simple."
He knew he was rather stuck if she was going to be so stubborn, since he refused at that point to leave her behind. He had already created a brotherly affection towards her, since she was so frail. Their isolation only added to this.
"Fine." He sat down next to her and sighed loudly.
Red looked down at the
ground—it was dark and difficult to see—and thought about where
they would go from there. And, if there was no "they" involved,
where would she herself go? What was there for such a lonely person
William, too, was troubled by his isolation and devastation. He was especially keen of the girl who sat beside him, so full of negative energy that it was starting to rub off on him. Though she smiled and laughed and things that weren't particularly laughable, she still seemed quite sad. He wanted to ask her about it, since curiosity is often amplified by fear, but the fact that they were still very much strangers stood as a wall between his desires and his manners. He kept quiet, and passed the time by watching for more of the specters.
They did not come, however.
"Maybe I should go and see what's going on?" he suggested after half an hour.
Redding looked up and shrugged her shoulders. "If you think it's safe…"
"Well, that's the whole point of going to check." He stood up slowly and stretched. "You wanna come with me?"
She shook her head. "People died."
He grimaced at the thought. "They did," he agreed, but his voice was hollow, empty—almost like he didn't believe it completely.
Red stood up too, using his loosely hanging arm as support, and picked up her blanket, which she wrapped around her shoulders. "I'll go with you."
They were cautious as they walked into that room, unsure of what they might come across. While there was no denying that evidence of humanity's mortality would be painted in that room in bright and stunning colors, they could not help but be hopeful. "Perhaps they'll just be stunned," they would think. "Perhaps they'll just be sleeping." But when they came to that room, which was already starting to fill with the stagnant air of death (though it was hardly detectable, and might have simply been their own fears playing tricks with their senses), they ability to hope and imagine quickly faded away.
There was no denying the undeniable.
William, being the self-proclaimed leader that he was, walked over to the nearest corpse, knelt beside it and felt for any signs of life. He had never gone through medical training, since his fascination was only in the realm of technology, but he knew well enough how to tell what was a pulse and what was not. When he was sure that the woman was, in fact, dead, he stood up and turned to Red. "I really, really don't think we should stay here."
Red nodded, pained as she did so. Though they would not be staying in the morbid room, it was still unnerving to know that their neighbors would be the dead. "I'll go back and get your rucksack…"
He said nothing as she wandered back to the cafeteria—she now welcomed the smell of onions, which she would forever more associate with life—and when she returned, not but a minute later, he silently took the rucksack from her and started to walk out of the room. It was serious work, picking their way through the dead bodies, trying to find a path that promised they would not have to come in contact with anything that no longer lived. On their way out, William bent over and picked up the lantern, which had been knocked over in the panic. All of the fuel had leaked out, but there was a tin of it sitting next to it. He took them both.
"It's that a little creepy?" she asked, as he stowed the tin in his now over-flowing rucksack.
"We don't know if
the guy who owned it died," he told her, "so it's not like
we're grave robbing."
"Then he'll just come back for it!" she exclaimed.
William rolled her eyes. He lit the lantern and began to walk out of the hall. "At this point, I don't think it matters. What is he going to do? Call the police?"
She fell silent.
"Besides, if he does find out that we took it, I'm sure he'll understand. It's every man for themselves, and he was the one to panic and carelessly leave this behind." He paused. "Are you coming?"
The light tempted her more than his company did, and it was enough to make her follow. She couldn't imagine being there alone, with no company but dead company. "I'm coming," she said, almost panicking, as she shorted the distance between them rapidly.
They were quiet for three minutes before Red managed to start a conversation. The silence was bothersome, since all it meant was being trapped in her own thoughts. And she could only imagine how many sad things he had to think about when he wasn't busy chatting.
"I was sick before all of this," she said to him suddenly, giving him a start.
"What?" He had not heard what she said, just that she had said something.
"I was sick before all of this, I said."
"Really? Well, there's no better time to get better like during the end of the world," he said nervously, holding up the lantern to check something he thought he saw.
"What is it?" she asked in a low whisper.
"Nothing," he assured her. He reminded himself not to fall victim to his fear, which was quickly evolving into paranoia.
"Well, it wasn't like I got well," she continued, once her own fear subsided.
"What d'you mean?"
Red thought of a way
to word it. "It's kind of strange really…" She shook her
head. "No, I don't think I should tell you…"
"Well, that's unfair!" William exclaimed impatiently. "Starting a story like that and then stopping."
She flushed. "Sorry…I just don't know if telling you would be the wise thing to do at the moment. I…" She fussed with the blanket for a second. "Let's talk about something else."
William rolled his eyes. "Whatever."
"I'll tell you later."
"Whatever," he repeated.
"When I'm sure I can trust you."
He merely nodded this time.
"Since I, myself, would be weirded out by it," she added.
"Enough, already!" he shouted, more annoyed than angry. "If you want to say it, then say it! If you don't want to then shut the hell up about it!"
Red shrunk away, for his voice was greatly amplified by the vastness of the night. It reminded her that she was walking alongside a stranger, whom she had met only hours ago, and that she had just watched several people die. This world was quickly changing into volatile place.
William was thinking about his explosion as she thought about her location. "…I mean, if you really want to tell me, then tell me. Don't beat around the bush coyly like some damn schoolgirl. But f you don't want to say it, then don't. I won't press you that hard. You don't have to say anything." He turned to her and brought the light closer to her face. "All right?"
"Yeah, all right," she agreed, sheepishly rubbing her arms. She forced herself to look ahead. "I'll tell you later," she told him in a final sort of way.
The lantern he held was still closer to her face than usual, and she came across the realization that he was studying her profile.
"What are you doing?"
"I swear I've seen you before…" he whispered, mostly to himself.
She laughed. "That came out of nowhere, didn't it?" She stopped walking so that she could examine him as well, and he was forced to stop, a few steps ahead of her, and turn toward her. "You look much the same as every other stranger," she surmised after a few seconds.
"That's what I thought about you…but the way you hold yourself, and the way you frown like that…" He shook his head. "Well, I suppose it's just me." And it was.
He started to walk
once more, and she followed after him. "Where are we going, by the
"Well, since being in a big group failed miserably, I though we could just find a house and stay there," he told her.
"So? Besides, the houses around here are really nice. Most of them are old, so a lot of older people live there, which means they'll be all sorts of useful things there, since old people are always so paranoid about things," he explained, as if he had already thought this through.
Redding mentioned her observation.
"Well, I guess so. But doesn't everyone think about worst case possibilities when they get really bored?"
She thought about it, but her reflections did not bring to mind any such act. "My thoughts are never so drastic. I never planned for this…" She was used to thinking about her demise, not about what she would do after everyone else had.
"I guess not many would…" he said airily, almost agreeing with her and pretty much not. "Do you figure the people who fled got away?" he asked after a long while.
turned. She had thought about that question several times. There
were so many threads of emotions tied to that thought, and yet it
floated around so aimlessly in her mind. She held a clinched fist to
her gut, as if she was trying to prevent it from doing the awful back
flips that it was, and forced an awkward response out of her. A
sharp, high-pitched bark: "I guess!"
He sighed. "I had just moved out of my parents' place before it happened. They came by just before they left: Told me how I should leave too…" he explained, slightly distracted as he spoke. He stopped walking for a minute and then began to cross the street. "This way."
"Why didn't you?"
"Why didn't you leave?"
"Oh." William had almost forgotten that he was talking about that. He quickly picked up his train of thought and continued with his story. "I told them that I thought it was a load of shit, and that following them to some crappy government wherever-they-were-sent wouldn't do much good if anything serious was actually happening." He was grimacing by the time he finished speaking.
"Guess you were wrong," she thought aloud.
He laughed, pained by the truth. "Guess I was."
They were, at that point, standing in front of a very nice old home. Had it been light out (or if their lantern was more effective), they would have seen that it was a lovely place indeed, with a Victorian style exterior that had been practically extinct by then.
"We aren't going to stay here, are we?" Red asked, frightened by the exterior, which loomed overhead.
"Oh, come on," he said, laughing. He took the front steps by two—how he could be so energetic was beyond her—and tested the doorknob. It was locked. "They must've feared of looters," he reported.
"Well, isn't that what we are?" she asked, still standing on the sidewalk.
"No. We're houseguests."
"Houseguests are always invited."
He laughed. "Not always. Sometimes they just expect to be received."
Redding rolled her eyes. "An empty house can't receive anything."
"All the more reason to go in," William replied. "Now, won't you get off it and get over here. I'd rather sleep in an unused house than on the street, and I'm pretty sure that it's your manners speaking, not your desires."
She could think of several things to say in response to that, but she realized that each and every one of them would paint the portrait of a hypocrite. She was hungry for something other than the can of peaches they had had for dinner, and she desperately wanted to lay down on a real bed, even though she had been with one not but twelve hours ago.
"Fine," she said reluctantly. She made her way up the steps (she was not so energetic as she did so) and stood beside him, slightly cross and just a bit smug. "Not like you've got a way in anyway."
William laughed. "Oh, come on. This house probably belongs to some old biddy and her old fart of a husband." He leaned down and felt beneath the doormat for a second before he pulled out a key. "How predictable."
She scowled. "How stupid, more like," she observed.
"How can you judge the hosts before you even meet them?" he asked her sarcastically as he put the key in the hole and unlocked the door. He nudged the door open with the toe of his shoe. "Ladies first."
Red did not object. She walked in cautiously, but curiously, unsure of what their temporary stomping grounds would hold. She didn't know how long they would be staying there (after all, she wasn't even sure of how long the chaos would last), and that lack of knowledge troubled her.
Even so, she couldn't help but be grateful. She had an advantage over most people by that point. She was alive.
"This will be our base camp," William said, much like a child who had just discovered a fairly climbable and comfortable tree, or simply a run down old shack that might be a useful fort. Redding could hardly see any redeeming quality of the living room, which looked as if it had been abandoned long before the evacuation.
"This house looks so
old…" she said in a misty, mysterious tone, as if the setting had
changed her mood and personality entirely. "It's kind of creepy,
He shook his head. "No, not really. The nicer neighborhoods were evacuated a month ago. This probably belonged to some fancy business man or something, and his connections got him a ticket to a better camp." He sighed bitterly. "Not that it would have done them any good. Those things went right through people…right through walls…"
"I don't want to talk about it," said Red, shivering.
He dropped the topic. "Well, it's not like there'll be any perishable goods around here. I suppose I can get what hasn't been taken from the grocery store by looters…" He kicked at his rucksack, which lay, overstuffed, on the floor next to him. "I didn't think to pack any food."
She acknowledged what he said with nothing more than a mumble and sat down on the only piece of furniture that didn't have a sheet on it—a leather recliner that smelled of brandy. From that angle, she could really get the true view of the room. It gave her a real feel of who truly lived there. It made her feel like an intruder, sitting in the spot that some old man had every day very several decades.
And she was one, too! No matter what William told her, she felt wrong in sitting where she was.
"I don't like this," she whispered, mostly to the absent inhabitants of the home than anyone else. William ignored her, for he didn't want to go through it with her again.
"I'll go to the store in the morning, so if I'm not here when you wake up, don't worry about it," he told her.
Redding, who had been
relaxing in the chair unconsciously, sat up straight, slightly
alarmed. "Isn't it unsafe to go off alone!?"
"No more unsafe than it is to go off with you around," he said, laughing—as seemed to be his habit.
She frowned, but didn't object. It wasn't like she was a terribly useful person.
"…Do you feel unsafe being here alone?" he asked reluctantly, after it was too quiet for too long.
"No," Red told him quickly. "Not at all."
"Well…" He pulled a sheet off of the sofa and wandered off, making an offhand comment of, "I'm gonna get some pillows and blankets.
She searched for the lever that let the chair fell back, and then, after almost a minute of fussing with it, she realized that she had to lean back with it as she pulled on the padded lever. "Goodness!" she exclaimed. "How ancient!" She fancied the chair (which must have been from a time before the lazy and easy), and found herself quite fond of it, since she had to wrestle with it just to get it to recline.
William, by then, had found the cupboards in the hallway that were full of blankets, pillows and sheets that smelled like they had not been washed in several years. He handed her two pillows and a blanket before he made his own bed on the sofa (which was really nothing more than a glorified loveseat).
"You sure you're comfortable on that?" he asked.
"Well," she began to admit, "I really only sat down because it was open, but it's actually really comfortable." She considered expressing her excitement about the primitive functions of it, but she decided against it. He probably was used to such things, since his hoarding habits were symptomatic of someone un-wealthy.
Ignoring the instinct to be valiant, he threw himself onto his makeshift bed and closed his eyes. He started to drift off into sleep even before his thoughts could grow grim with the memories of the many awful sights he had seen that day.
And it would only get worse. He knew that.
Redding did, too.
It is remarkable the way memories can flood forth in the terrible form of dreams. And, though she did not remember everything in those hours that felt like seconds, it did cause her to stare up at the ceiling the next morning, alone and stiff, with no thoughts but the past thoughts of her pain and emotional isolation…
In the advanced stages of her sickness, it was difficult for her to focus. She was not asleep—it was difficult for her to keep her eyes closed for very long when she was in so much pain—but she was in a state very similar to it. There were times when she would be able to pull herself out of the fog long enough to hear the noises of her busy and bustling apartment. She could hear the harsh arguments that went on between her brother and her sister, and she could hear the passionate quarrels that started all too easily between her mother and father. Because that was all she ever woke up to, it was all she figured went on.
That was not a foolish guess, however, as the seams that held together the thin and frail fabric of her household was quickly deteriorating. While the hell she had to go through was nothing to laugh about, the financial hell it was creating caused a great deal of strain. Everyday that she spent in bed, consuming medication that seemed to do nothing for her, was another day that her parents had to fight through, pinching pennies in a way that they never before had to, as poor of people that they were.
The knowledge of what she was doing to her family soon became all too apparent, making her demented and altered existence even more painful than it originally had been. She would often spend her moments of alertness thinking about what she should do. She knew that she surely could do very little, being the useless and wretched creature that she was. The only option, it seemed, was to do, but she wasn't sure of how she could go about that.
"How does one die?" she would ask herself, fully aware of her limitations. She was not even strong enough to crawl over to the loosely shut window and leap to her death. "Could I simply stop breathing?"
But, try as she might, she could not do such a thing. She did not, at the time, realize that this was not because such a thing was impossible—for many before her have silently passed on when they no longer wished to inhabit our Earth—but because she did not truly wish to die. The will to live was still glowing as bright as ever, hardly even tarnished by the emotional burden that she felt. She was fighting even without realizing.
So there she laid, sickly and unwell, waiting for two possible fates—to pull through soon or to die soon.
Such fates, of course, would not come her way.
It was three days
after she made a promise to herself to stop living if it continued to
burden her family that the first news of the chaos met her. It was
unintentional, like everything else had been lately, but she had
heard it as clearly as she would if it was said directly towards
"…will we do, then?" her mother asked as they walked past her room. They seemed to be heading toward the kitchen, for she could hear her father's response only when she strained her ears, for he was a soft-spoken man.
"I'm not sure, Alicia, but it's not good…" He sighed loudly. "They want us out of here by tomorrow."
Her mother gasped and clasped her hands over her mouth loudly.
"I know, I know—but it might not be so bad. We don't have to leave. There's too many people in this city for them to forcibly evacuate us."
"But…if they're going to evacuate us… Isn't it dangerous to stay here, Paul?" she asked in horror. "We can't stay here if it's going to be dangerous. We have to think of all our children, not just her."
Her heart jumped at the mention of her existence. "They still think of me!" was her first thought, for she had long been sure that her parents no longer loved their sickly and invalid child. But her impression of those statements took a turn for the worst, and she realized what it was that her parents meant. "They're going to leave me here," she whispered to herself in the dark, cold room—very much alone.
But the thought that was very unbearable, and she was unable to keep the thought floating around in her mind for very long. It was difficult for such a pained and unhappy creature to hold onto the things that made them pained and unhappy. Even so, it left her in a sour condition and she struggled to remain focused on their conversation.
She would have to forget what they had to say… After all, she knew little of their predicament, and their unease made no sense to her at all. What was the danger? Why would they need to leave her? Why couldn't they take her with them? Where was it that they were going? She was very confused, and she easily succumbed to the confusion, drifting into the same fretful state that she had been for the last several days.
"Mother, what would bring you to abandon your child?"
"If my child was in harm's way because of me being with them…I would abandon them."
"Would you abandon me if you found it fitting?"
She turned over in her sleep, placing her even closer to the edge of her bed.
"Father, what would be so dangerous that you would fear for your life over your child's?"
"Disease and famine, death and destruction."
"You value your
life over theirs?"
Once more, she turned in her sleep, holding her arms over her head as if to block out the barrage of sorrowful truths, which assaulted her so. She was dangling—only inches away from a bruised fate—off the side of her bed, relying on the rules of physics to keep her balanced for a few moments longer.
"Brother, will you come to your older sister's side and save her?"
"Would it put me in any danger?"
"Most certainly so."
She moaned like a small child, and tears began to well up around her firmly shut eyes. Oh, if only she could force them open! If only she could awaken from her nightmare, for even the hell she went through in the stark world of alertness was nothing compared to her emotional torment. And, still, she teetered and tottered on the edge of her impending doom, only moments away from falling over the edge.
"Sister, will you
come to your older sister's side and save her?"
"Would she do the same for me if I was in the same situation?"
"Yes, of course! Of course! A thousand times over!"
really? Or is she only telling me that because she's afraid that
she herself might die?"
"Oh, sister—don't say that…"
"I wouldn't save her, since she wouldn't save me."
The final encounter was too much for her, and she was forced to awaken from her nightmare just before she fell from her elevated bed onto the hard, cold, wooden floor of her bedroom. She fell with a hallow, "THUD!" Her body was far too weak and far too sickly to have made much of a noise at all, and she feared deeply that her parents would not hear her, though they were in the next room.
Sobbing from the pain and the torment, she pushed herself up with frail, useless arms—the arms of an invalid!—and crawled over to her bed. But a thought struck her as she did so, and she let herself fall back onto the ground so that she could contemplate it.
"But why should I go back to that awful bed?" she asked herself. Such a prison it was, she knew quite well, keeping her cooped up when she would have much rather gone out to be with her friends. Her friends…
She grew sorrowful once more.
They didn't come to visit her anymore. She never got the attention that she had originally received when she first had to leave school. That was so long ago, she thought, unhappily reminiscing. It had been a year, she was rather certain, since they had abandoned her so callously. They rejected her as if she would never recover…
Well… She looked down at the floor and wiped away a few tears. "I still haven't recovered." But she could remember telling them, without a shred of doubt, that she would get strong again. She only got worse—each day a hell in its own right until she could no longer walk without support. And, recently, she had gotten so much worse. Why didn't they know what was wrong with her?
Feebly, she reached up to her bed and pulled herself up, slowing inching her way up to her soft yet confining prison. She had nowhere else to go, she knew quite well. It would be her home until she withered and died, and she doubted that that would be far off. The near feature, it would be. She'd die soon, and then she wouldn't have to worry about anything anymore.
She let out a yelp when her emaciated stomach made contact with the hard frame of her bed. She dangled there helplessly for ten seconds before she was able to pull herself up and off of it. Once she had crawled to the middle of her bed, where a rut had formed from her constant occupancy, she pulled up the fabric of her pajamas (when was the last time that those awful things had been washed?) and gazed at the bruise as it formed. Not only was there one there along her side from her fall, but there was one upon her gut as well.
"I'm such a mess," she told herself, hiding the damaged flesh before it could make her cry again.
"I'll never be normal again." How could she live after such a demented life? How could her body recover after being so close to its demise? There was no way—no way that she could see.
She started to drift back to sleep, but she was rudely awakened by the sound of her mother's voice.
"Don't go in there, Paul," she told her husband shrewdly.
"Why not?" he asked, alarmed by what could have easily been mistaken for malice in her voice.
Paul, her father, sighed and put an arm around his wife as he always did—an act that even she could see, though her eyes were closed and the door was not open. "It's not fair—not to her, or to us… But, if we take her from here, she'll die. The air is strange these days, and it's so cold," her wife said to him.
"She'll die if we leave her here. Ignoring the obvious fact that she needs us to take care of her, she'll be exposed to whatever it is that the government wants us to avoid. If she stays here, she'll die."
"And, if she leaves here, she'll die."
"Even so," her father said, placing his hand on the doorknob once more, "she has more of a chance if she's with us, where we can at least protect her and continue to give her her medication."
"But Paul, she's only going to make it more difficult for us to take care of our other children." She pulled his hand away all too easily. "They said already that we can't bring anything more than what we can carry, and I doubt either of us could manage carrying her to wherever it is that they're taking us."
"It doesn't matter, Alicia."
"Paul, who is more important to you? Your daughter, who is about to die no matter what we decide? Or your other children, who are healthy and full of life, and will only die prematurely if you insist on taking care of a doomed, sickly girl?" she asked, her voice cracking as she spoke. She could not tell if her mother's voice did that because she was under a great deal of stress, or if she was simply falling apart under the pressure of abandoning her daughter. She wasn't sure if either would make her feel any better.
"I don't like it any more than you do!" she exclaimed, screaming at the start, yet quieting her voice as she went on. It was not out of consideration of their ill daughter, but out of fear that her other children would hear her inhumane remarks.
"Then why are you doing this? Why are you making me decide between my children?" he asked angrily, stopping his foot on the floor.
"I'm doing this because it has to be done!"
"It shouldn't be!"
"But it's true! It's life! It's all we can do!" Alicia told him. "I want to save my daughter…but I want to keep the children that are still alive and well that way, no matter what… If I have to risk her life for the sake of them…"
"That aside, why won't you let me check on my daughter?"
Oh, what a question indeed! If they would only open the door, they would discover that their daughter was becoming strong! She could pull herself up, and she could save herself from lying there helplessly. Oh, if they would only open that door! Then they wouldn't be standing there like heartless fools, debating over if they should leave her to whatever danger might exist in that world—alone!
"Because," her mother lowered her voice to a whisper and started all over again. "Because this is the first step. It's impossible for us to just leave her tomorrow. We'll have to do things gradually. Pretending like she isn't there will make it easier for us."
Her father, who had always been weak when it came to his wife, walked away from the door, though he was not retreating. "I can't abandon her like this, Alicia. It's not right. She's my daughter. I can't. It's wrong. I can't. As a father…" He was pacing at that point, going back and forth, holding his head in his hands and telling himself what he needed to tell himself so that he wouldn't feel quite as bad about his unfaithful and unkind decision.
After all, his heart and her heart were already set on the truth. There was no denying that they had to leave their daughter. There was no denying that her days were numbered, no matter what they did. The awful truth was that she had been dying for a very long time now, and they had both known that when the doctor first told them. And when the next doctor, and the next doctor told them, it was only reinforced. They could not deny that, whatever they ended up doing, they would have to say goodbye to her.
Because of this, she had become dead to them in a way that is hard to explain. Their hopes had long since expired, and they no longer had it in them to make up fanciful and fantastic cures that might one day save her. She was gone no matter what they did. It was simply the morality of the situation that conflicted them. Their morals, which had been instilled into them after years of existing in our society, told them that abandoning their daughter for the sake of their other children was wrong, and they had to do whatever they could to save all of their children, not just some. Rationale told them that they had to do whatever they could do to ensure the lives of whoever was savable.
It was a terrible thing for both of them, and it would weigh on their minds until the day they died—soon in the future though it may be.
"No one will hold it against you, Paul. No one will look down on you. No one will judge you. Anyone would understand that this is what we have to do."
You see, this family was not made up by blind heroes. They could not attempt the impossible simply because of how romantically perfect it seemed.
Sleeping became a torment for her, the girl so confined by an illness that had neither a name nor a cure. She would find herself trapped in the most awful dreams, full of all of her worldly fears and her moral inhibitions. How many times had she died by the hand of a family member in those dreams? How many times had she woken up with tears streaming down her cheeks and sweat beading at her brow? How many times had she wished for death simply because she hated to stay alive?
Even so, she preferred sleep to the unhappy time she spent while awake. It was awful to lie there, in pain and unable to do much of anything. She would try to read, for there were many books inside of her room, and she had read them all many, many times, but, in her confused state, it was difficult for her to focus on things from page to page. She would think that she had everything down, and that she had understood everything that she had read, but she would find, as soon as she got to the next page, that she hadn't the slightest clue as to what was going on.
It was terribly frustrating, and it only added to the heartbreak of being so ill. She couldn't read, and she couldn't watch television—the light and the sound both gave her a headache. All she could manage was to lie there, looking up at the ceiling of her room, letting her thoughts wander. Before, she would listen to the conversations of her family, but, lately, there was nothing but the sound of the crude piping of their apartment building. It was haunting, to be so alone when she was not stable enough mentally to make use of the isolated time.
Faintly, she gazed at the many cracks in her ceiling. The water damage in the far right corner had captured her interest for several minutes, but it could no longer keep her enthralled as it once had. The vertigo created by her fever made them seem to inch and crawl across the stucco, making fanciful images that almost made her forget that she was laying in her bed, sick and very much alone.
"I hate it here," she said without realizing that she was speaking.
The sound of her voice, loud simply because it was the only noise to be heard, caught the attention—as if fate was finally smiling upon her miserable existence—of a passing heroic person. A young woman, no older than thirty, but no younger than twenty-five, had been walking down the halls of the empty apartment building, searching for anyone who might have been left behind. She ran into the girl's room, pushing the door open with a great deal of strength—as if that door had never before been opened, and it had become stuck in its own dust—and found herself a sight that would produce horror in most.
"My god!" she exclaimed in a soft southern accent, running to her bedside as soon as she noticed her. She pulled away her covers to see if she was suffering from any injury, and, when she found that her only problem was that she was unwell, she lifted her up into her arms. "Come on, dear, we have to get out of here."
It took a her a while to react, since her condition was much more grim that it had been, but, once she realized what this stranger was attempting to do, she pushed her away with what meager strength she had left. "Let me go! Help! Help! Mother! Fath—"
The stranger tightly clamped her free hand over her mouth. "Shh—quiet. There's no one else left here, but the government might have their patrols come by again, and you have to be very quiet."
She shook her head, trying to express her confusion.
"Ah…" The woman thought for a second. "If I let go of your mouth, will you promise me not to scream?"
"Very good." Gently, she placed her back on her awful bed and released her from her grasp. "Now, I haven't got much time to explain everything to you, but…"
"Where are my parents?"
"Well," the woman tilted her head to the side, thinking once more, "I guess they went off with everyone else—to the evacuation site."
"No," she said. "My parents wouldn't leave me!"
The stranger seemed very pained by what she said, and she grew quiet for what seemed like a good minute. She did, of course—the tension of the air reminding her of how little time she had left—gather her wits. "Honey, I'm sorry, but this apartment building is completely empty."
"Then…" She couldn't understand that, though the reality of that statement should have been reinforced by the many hateful conversations she had been forced to overhear. "Who are you? What's going on?"
She smiled in the pained sort of way that her mother used to when she first became ill. "I'm a hero," she told her. "I'm one of the few who decided to stay behind and help out those who were unable or unwilling to leave this city for…for the one that the government deemed safe."
"Safe?" she repeated, shaking her head. She did not understand. What was this danger that was spoken of again and again?
"Nobody knows what it is, and nobody knows if it's really any danger at all, but the government has told us that we will die if we stay here, unprotected. That's why some of us stayed, because we don't believe them. They won't tell us just what it is, and they won't give us the opportunity to ask." She took her by the arms and looked her square in the eye. "We can't fuss about these things. I need to get you to the shelter, where we can at least keep track of everyone who stayed."
She nodded. She was too tired and too confused to be strong and demand answers.
"Now, can you tell me your name, dear?"
She opened her mouth to say it with the same amount of confidence that anyone would have when answering a question so often answered, yet she found that she had no name to go with that confidence. She let her mouth hang open, and her expression changed from the frightened and pained look that usually occupied her face to the devastated and bewildered look of absolute confusion. She did not know her name.
"I…" She shook her head and furrowed her brow. She mouthed the same word over and over—at least ten times—before she managed to say, "I don't know my name."
The woman reacted like most people would in that situation, which had several worrisome factors all crammed into one panicked fraction of time. She sighed kindly and patted the girl on her arm, saying to her in the voice of a doctor to a mental patient, "That's all right, dear. We can talk about this later, but I need to get you out of here right now!"
"Nope," she said, hoisting her up again, "you can object later! I have to get you out of here!"
She wanted to protest, simply because she was in a situation completely out of her control, but her better judgment (yes, it still remained after she had been so infested with sickness) told her that she had to listen to that woman, though she did not know her and she did not even know herself.
Everything was calm and silent as they journeyed through her apartment and eventually the entire building. The story that the strange woman told her was only reinforced by the sights she saw. The entire building was completely and utterly empty. There was not a single soul that remained. Everyone there had been wise enough (or perhaps too simple to question authority) to leave when they were told, even when it meant leaving a child behind. The woman who was rescuing her (she assumed that was what was happening) checked the last two rooms on her floor before leaving the apartment building.
"Where are we going?" she asked as she was carried along. They were, at that point, going down the street she had known for many years but had almost forgotten during the duration of her imprisonment.
"I've already told you," the woman said, slightly out of breath, though the girl she carried was very light. "You remember, I hope."
"Yes…but where exactly is it?"
"We set up camp at the civic center. It's not very convenient, but we don't have to worry about the government finding us. It's right next to the park, and there is a grocery store across the street."
Further questions hung at the tip of her tongue, but she was not given the opportunity to ask any at all. You see, their world as they knew it was very much in peril, and there were many dangers. Neither of them had yet encountered the creatures and objects that would cause the end and beginning of many, many things.
But that was not to be for very long at all.
William came striding into the house so freely that Red did not jump when he roused her from her thoughts. She sat up, pulling the blanket with her, for the air was chilled, and gazed at him listlessly. Her abdominal muscles tightened at the sight of food, as if to keep any of it from getting to her stomach, but she ignored the feeling. She knew she was hungry.
"What did you manage to get?" she asked as she examined the bags from a distance. She wanted to see for herself, but her legs felt weak, much like they did when she first fell ill.
"Loads of stuff, surprisingly. It seems that the only things people looted were booze and expensive stuff, which is rather rare in a grocery store, really." He took a smaller bag out of one of the larger ones and walked it over to her. "The bakery still had a lot of stuff. Here." He wiggled it in front of her as he strained to keep what else he had in his arms perfectly balanced.
She smiled and accepted it graciously. "Thank you." The smell of it warmed her mood quickly, and she forgot the feeling in her stomach entirely. Though the bread was stale, it had not yet gone bad. It was tough to get down, but, after choking on the first few bites, she got a hang of it and managed to eat the entire pastry.
"Wow," William said, observing her once he had placed the food and other odd items he had found in the kitchen. He wandered off again and returned with a carton of tropical punch.
"The expiration date is almost a year from now, so I figure it's safe to drink," he told her as he handed it to her.
She nodded gratefully, forcing what was left of her meal down her dry throat before opening it up and taking a sip.
It was only after she was relieved that she looked up at him guiltily. "Did…did you get something to eat?" she asked cautiously.
"Oh, me?" He pointed to himself. "Yeah, I ate. I scarfed down a few things before I packed what I could up in one of those oversized carts," he held up his hands the way one would when pushing a grocery cart, "and hauled it over here. You just woke up, but I've made at least three trips since I woke up. Err, not that you sleeping in is a bad thing," he added, for he was truly trying his best not to anger her.
She nodded. "Thanks."
"Oh!" he exclaimed suddenly. He ran off to the hallway and came back a few seconds later with a bundle of clothes. "Turns out the old biddy and fart had grandchildren around." He placed them on the sofa next to her. "You've got nothing but pajamas on, so I thought…" his voice trailed off.
"Did you just get really bored this morning or something?" she asked with a curious smile on her face. It was amusing to see him be so awkward yet so friendly at the same time.
He laughed. "Yes, it did. Also…I've got to admit…" He looked around the house. "When I was a kid, I would look at this house and say, 'I wanna live like that one day!' Well, I never got the chance… But this is as close as I can get, you know? Everything is up for the taking."
Red nodded. "I suppose I can understand that…" She put the carton of juice aside and tried to get up, but she ended up only slipping off the leather of the chair—which, strangely enough, had not stuck to her like leather usually does when bare flesh is exposed to it for too long.
William helped her up right away. "Are you all right?" he asked. Had the situation been less serious, he might have simply laughed at her for being so clumsy. There were many odd things about her, such as her attempt at telling him a story, and he couldn't help but be curious—concerned, even.
She shook her head before she could think, but she recovered when she realized what she had admitted. "I mean, I'm fine…" Using his support, she stood up straight. "Just tired."
"You slept for over twelve hours, Red," he told her somberly.
She was unfazed by this, as she had slept for vast quantities of time that would make a measly "over than twelve hours" blush humbly. Even so, it was odd that she was so tired. It was almost like when she had been sick.
Had she been too quick to assume that she would remain well?
The hell of how she had once been was terrifying…
As she thought, William noticed something quite queer. He had not originally intended to gaze into her eyes, but the change in them…it caught his attention. He could have sworn that those eyes had been fifty-fifty only a day before… He tried to shake it off, or even to change the angle at which he looked at it, but nothing seemed to help. He could no longer deny that her eyes were completely red.
"Red," he said.
"Yeah?" She shook her way her thoughts.
"Why do your eyes change color?"